An animated Al Gore and academic Bill Bradley auditioned Saturday night for an audience of Democratic activists here in Iowa, with the vice president facing his rival and taunting him to conduct a series of weekly debates.
Gore--asking "What about it, Bill?"--used a baseball metaphor to challenge the former basketball star. If sluggers Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa "just stayed in the dugout . . . and didn't step up to the plate, they wouldn't hit many home runs," Gore said, drawing cheers from partisans packing the party fund-raising dinner.
Bradley, ignoring the challenge, instead criticized Gore for the increasingly negative tone of his White House campaign. "It takes discipline to be positive," said Bradley, whose reading glasses gave him a professorial air. "Because it's easy to slip the other way."
The joint appearance before roughly 3,000 party faithful was hardly the debate Gore has been hankering for. The two candidates spoke back-to-back and, by mutual request, didn't even sit with each other on the dais. Instead, after a brief handshake, they retreated to separate dinner tables and the company of their supporters.
Still, the gathering in Iowa--host of the nation's first presidential caucus in January--marked the first time Gore and Bradley have been together since the vice president retooled his campaign last week and began assailing his challenger on virtually a daily basis.
His voice roiling and rumbling, Gore jabbed the former senator from New Jersey for previously supporting an experimental voucher program to allow use of taxpayer dollars for private schools and for voting in the Senate against subsidies for ethanol, a corn-based fuel that is a boon for Iowa farmers.
He also attacked Bradley--without using his name--for disloyalty to the Democratic Party by siding with President Reagan's 1981 budget cuts and "walking away" from Congress after the 1994 GOP takeover.
Gore also threw in, for good measure, an attack on the GOP front-runner, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, for opposing the passage of federal hate-crime legislation.
Bradley, having lost a coin toss, spoke first. But he obviously anticipated much of Gore's attack.
He recounted how, as a young man, he watched Republicans led by the late Sen. Barry Goldwater vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. At that point, he said, there "was no doubt in my mind what I was. I was a Democrat. I became a Democrat because it's the party of justice."
Without ever mentioning Gore directly, Bradley criticized the negativity of campaigns and suggested "the challenge for politics and the challenge for America is to say who we positively are. . . . That's what we want."
He called for "common-sense" gun control, including licensing and registration of handguns; greater access to health care; an overhaul of the campaign finance system; and an economic prosperity "that takes everyone to higher ground."
Even before the event, Gore was on the attack. While declining to call the former sports hero a quitter--"others have"--he criticized Bradley even more harshly for his votes on the Reagan budget cuts and 1996 exit from the Senate.
"I didn't walk away from the fight when Newt Gingrich took over the Congress," Gore told reporters at an outdoor news conference in northeast Des Moines.
Bradley, in characteristic form, brushed off Gore's attacks.
"I am simply not going to get into dealing with the darts that are being thrown," he said at his own outdoor news conference. "I think the American people want to have a positive vision of the future. To the extent someone is confident in their own vision of the future, they don't have to resort to darts."
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