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Six months ago, having dinner with Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller and several of his friends, I mentioned that the night before, I had seen Bill Bradley get a warm reception at a front-porch gathering of longtime Democratic activists in Des Moines. When I gave them the name of Bradley's host, I noticed an exchange of knowing glances around the table.

Miller was an early supporter of Al Gore, as were some of the guests. But others were uncommitted and at least one was a Republican. The explanation for their expressions of amused disdain was simple: Bradley's host was a well-known maverick, a local Don Quixote, who had tilted at many a windmill without notable success.

I took note of their response, but still thought there was room for an upset in Iowa, given the lackluster campaign Gore was running at that time. It would be another two months before he shook up his organization, moved his operation from Washington to Nashville, and shed the vice presidential mantle of automatic succession to begin campaigning hard against Bradley.

I have thought back to that evening in recent days, because it was about that time the Bradley campaign made the strategic decision to mount an all-out challenge to Gore in Iowa. That decision came back to haunt the former New Jersey senator Monday night, when he was routed by Gore in the Iowa caucuses. Bradley now must hold off the vice president next Tuesday in the New Hampshire primary, lest he come under intense pressure to abandon the race and permit the Democrats to focus on defeating the GOP in November.

The Bradley gamble was not a bad one when he made it. He had grown up in neighboring Missouri and had hometown boosters who were eager to help him in Iowa. In 1988, Dick Gephardt of St. Louis won the Iowa caucuses, doing so well that Al Gore gave up the fight before the votes were cast.

But this was not 1988, and this was not the same Al Gore. This was the legatee of the Clinton administration, armed with seven years worth of hard-earned IOUs from core Democratic constituencies. Although one United Auto Workers leader showed up at that front-porch gathering for Bradley in Des Moines, most of Iowa labor followed the endorsement of the national AFL-CIO and lined up behind Gore. The teachers did the same thing, rewarding Gore for his attention to their issues.

The result was that Bradley had to go outside the mainstream of Democratic Party activists to find support. The support was there, especially in the university towns and among business and professional Democrats. But he was never able to crack the core of the party in Iowa -- its labor and farm adherents.

And it turned out that the fringe players who volunteered to help him did not have the organizational skills -- or the muscle -- the unions and teachers supplied for Gore.

Bradley's natural style is conversational; that is what made him so appealing on that Des Moines front porch. But to get thousands of people to leave their homes and storm the caucuses packed with disciplined Gore brigades took more than good conversation. It took inspiration and command, and Bradley did not supply those qualities.

A few hours before the caucus results came in, I spoke with one of Bradley's lieutenants in Des Moines, who knew quite well what lay ahead. "We'll be all right, once we get the hell out of here," he said.

New Hampshire is different -- and it may be better for Bradley. The primary there turns less on organizational resources and more on the genuine appeal of the candidates. Independents can and perhaps will play a bigger role. The late Paul Tsongas, the recent candidate whose appeal Bradley most closely echoes, won New Hampshire over Bill Clinton in 1992 -- and not just because he was from Massachusetts. There is an idealistic streak in New Hampshire Democrats that responds to candidates like Tsongas and Bradley.

But Tsongas was spared having to campaign in Iowa. In 1992, Iowa's own Sen. Tom Harkin was running, so no one else went into the state.

Bradley had no such excuse. "In a two-man race, the press would never let you skip Iowa," a Bradley strategist told me -- and he is probably right. But Iowa was an expensive detour for Bradley and a huge boost for Gore. The Veep is in the driver's seat now.

Washington Post Writers Group

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