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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

In a contrary state, an underdog has his day

Bill Bradley finds his voice--and a surprise beachhead in New Hampshire

By Eric Pooley/Claremont, N.H.

April 19, 1999
Web posted at: 11:42 a.m. EDT (1542 GMT)

TIME magazine

Bill Bradley's leather shoes are cracked, and his suit and tie--as he makes a point of telling me at a doughnut shop in Claremont, near the Vermont border--are suffering through their second straight campaign day. For the former New Jersey Senator, an insurgent trying to grab the Democratic nomination from Al Gore, genteel shabbiness signifies authenticity. Bradley wants you to know he's got bigger things--purer things--on his mind, and the doughnut shop is packed with people who have come to hear about them (and a few who just want coffee and crullers). Ten months before the primary, voters still outnumber reporters at events like this; the process hasn't yet become ghastly and surreal, and Bradley works the room happily, then talks about why he's running--to restore trust, clean up the political money game and use our prosperity to help the 1 in 5 children growing up poor. "This economy's so good we have no more excuses," he says. "These are the issues I'm fighting for. I don't have Air Force Two out there; I don't have the Secret Service. But I do have those of you who came out to Dunkin' Donuts on a Sunday morning to see me. Some of you might have known me when I was in short pants"--his years as a basketball star--"but I'm in a different place now, and I'm asking for a different level of trust."

His big ideas are meant to contrast with the poll-tested, bite-size notions Gore has been promoting lately (a telephone hot line for traffic-jam updates, an airline passenger's bill of rights), but Bradley won't offer details or even hint at how he would get these big things done. ("Come fall, we'll be making a series of major proposals," he says.) For now, at least, people don't seem to mind. His call for reform has helped establish a beachhead in New Hampshire, a contrarian state famous for punishing front runners and lifting underdogs. Gore has the state's top 100 Democrats more or less locked up; after that, most folks are up for grabs. Some 400 have joined Bradley's New Hampshire campaign, and his events around the state draw full houses, though it's too early to tell the curious from the committed. He's performing well on the stump; after his thoughtful speech at the state party convention in Manchester, an internist named Dick Tartow, 67, who had volunteered for Gore just two weeks before, yanked off his GORE 2000 button and replaced it with one that said BRADLEY FOR PRESIDENT. And at the doughnut shop, state representative Amy Robb-Theroux, 34, is also having second thoughts about working for Gore. "People my age don't know much about Bradley," she says, "but I'd heard wonderful things, so I came to find out more. And I'm impressed."

Bradley may turn out to be too good for this world. He isn't running a campaign so much as testing a thesis: finding out whether he can win without losing his soul. (Sounds corny, but that's the movie he has cast himself in.) When I suggest he's positioning himself just to the left of Gore, he makes me feel crass: "We've got to get beyond this political calculation game," he says, "and give somebody the benefit of the doubt that he's speaking from the heart."

Speaking from the heart is easy with the election months away and no one demanding specifics. But so far the underdog is clearly having more fun, coming from behind in a two-man race. (While Gore is stuck in the polls, Bradley has picked up 14 points since early March--and he raised $3 million just last week). But it's too soon to think about winners and losers. For now, it's enough that someone in the race hasn't taken a poll, that someone spends his time talking about "seeing the goodness in your neighbor" and "making connections" and "feeling less lonely, less isolated, less fearful." If it sounds as if he's running for pastor rather than President, at times you can almost feel it working. At a spaghetti dinner in Keene, a fifth-grader named Leeanne Hamel stood and sang the national anthem. Her voice was sweet and clear, but she had trouble with the high notes, and her confidence broke. Bradley's voice came in to help, and then others, until finally the whole place was singing, led by Leeanne. When it was over, everyone cheered. The only smile bigger than Bradley's belonged to the young girl. That might not get him anywhere near the White House, but it counts for more than any political speech I've heard this year.


Cover Date: April 26, 1999

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