Vice President Gore and Bill Bradley squared off Saturday for the first time, previewing a "real contest with real choices" between the sitting vice president and his surging challenger seeking the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000.
In back-to-back speeches to Democratic chairmen from across the country, Gore promised to work his heart out for their support, while Bradley urged them to embrace -- not shirk from -- a fight for the party's nomination.
"What better way to energize voters . . . than a contest that brings two people together for a spirited debate of ideas -- a real contest with real choices decided by voters in caucuses and primaries throughout this nation," Bradley told the Democratic National Committee.
Both Gore and Bradley chided the Republican front-runner, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, for what they asserted was his lack of support for an expanded anti-hate crimes law in Texas.
Bradley reminded the party faithful that he had gone to Austin when the Texas Legislature was in session last spring and urged Bush to support the legislation, which eventually failed.
"If I'm the Democratic nominee and he is the Republican nominee -- and he fails to support this bill -- I will make it an issue in the presidential election," Bradley said.
Gore was even more emphatic, citing the slayings of James Byrd Jr., a black man in Jasper, Texas, and Matthew Shepard, a gay college student in Wyoming.
"When James Byrd is dragged behind the back of a pickup truck by bigots because of his race, when Matthew Shepard is crucified on a split-rail fence by bigots, how can any political leader in either party say there is no difference between hate crimes and other crimes?" Gore asked.
"There is a difference," he said, drawing a roaring round of applause. "It's intended to stigmatize and dehumanize."
Gore also chastised Bush for asserting that a "wave of evil" was behind the church shootings this month in Fort Worth.
"Evil has always been with us," Gore said, urging action over "just talk."
"Why don't you join us," he asked in a question directed at Bush, "in the effort to take the weapons of evil out of the hands of evil doers."
Gore and Bradley support licensing of handguns; Bush does not.
During their speeches, neither candidate mentioned the other by name, though they slipped in subtle digs. It marked the first time the two foes had made a joint appearance to court the same crowd, both campaigns said.
The 428 members of the National Committee -- mostly allies of Gore and President Clinton -- will cast votes at the Democratic presidential convention next year.
Though he is the party's front-runner, Gore had the biggest need for a solid speech in the wake of new polls in New York and New Hampshire showing the vice president and Bradley in a dead heat and the perception that his campaign is lackluster and suffering from ties to Clinton's scandal-plagued presidency.
Gore did not mention Clinton in his remarks.
While the two candidates are neck and neck in New York and New Hampshire, Gore holds big leads elsewhere.
"I'm telling people this is a long process, and he's committed to working for America's families," said Tony Coelho, Gore campaign chairman. "We're solid in Iowa. We're solid in California."
Bradley hoped to continue mending relations with some hard-core Democrats who recall that he left the Senate in 1996 after calling the political system -- and, by implication, his party -- "broken."
With an understated delivery, Bradley tried to spell out why Democrats should consider rejecting Gore and giving him a serious look. He gave the Clinton administration credit for improving race relations and the economy, but he said more needed to be done on those and other issues.
"We've accomplished so much," he said in an implicit recognition of the Clinton-Gore successes, but, "What else is there to do?"
Gun control, poverty, health care and campaign finance reform were among the topics he promised to champion, eventually drawing contrasts with Gore. He spent little or no time on other issues critical to the Democratic base -- abortion, Medicare and Social Security.
Gore talked about all three and echoed Bradley's call for gun control but focused more on family and education issues.
He offered veiled criticism of his challenger. "I have never been for (school) vouchers," he said, recognizing that most of the activists know that Bradley once supported limited voucher programs.
Gore's campaign clearly wants to make the case that Bradley abandoned the party in 1996 and Gore is the true Democrat. The vice president's supporters wore buttons that read, "ALways a Democrat" -- with "AL" in blue letters and the rest in red.
Bradley made a non-descript entry to the room, spoke with reading glasses perched atop his nose and waded through the crowd afterward.
Gore sped through the crowd, flanked by Secret Service agents, with rock music blaring throughout the hall.
They were interrupted by applause in roughly the same numbers. Afterward, activists said both had performed well but not great.
Gore, who had been scheduled to speak before Bradley, abruptly sought and secured the final speaking slot -- making his the last impression left with activists. He also deployed more staff and spent more time at the three-day meeting than Bradley.