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Who's the real underdog?
As Bill Bradley surges, Al Gore claims second-class status. But are Democrats ready for this spacy, aloof anti-candidate?

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By Anthony York

Oct. 2, 1999 | SAN FRANCISCO -- The last time I saw Bill Bradley, he wasn't looking terribly presidential. Speaking at a local community center here, clad in a rumpled red sweater-vest, Bradley gave a meandering presentation to a small group of latte-sipping San Franciscans. He took some questions, gave tangential answers, and raised some offbeat notions that got no coverage -- possible statehood for post-Castro Cuba, for instance.

There were no television cameras, just a couple of local newspaper reporters tucked away in the audience scribbling into notebooks. At a time when he was making a big deal of his concern about race relations, his staff had given reporters the wrong address for a local Juneteenth celebration Bradley was attending in the city's black community, which seemed a metaphor for his aimless campaign.

Much has changed in the last three months. Bradley's candidacy has caught fire at least with the media, thanks in equal parts to the struggles of front-runner Vice President Al Gore, Bradley's head-turning fund-raising success, and reporters' crowning boredom with a Democratic presidential primary that six months ago looked like it would be a coronation.

When Bradley came to Oakland on Thursday, for instance, to discuss his new $65 billion health care plan, a half dozen television cameras were there to watch, while another dozen kneeling photographers snapped away. On the same day that Bush was in town for a Silicon Valley fund-raiser, Bradley's appearance still commanded attention from local and national media.

Many of them were there to get a response to the surprising announcement that his campaign had raised more money than had Gore's over the last three months, and has more money in the bank than the Gore campaign. In typical fashion, Bradley downplayed the news. "I don't think we have momentum," Bradley said. "I think we have a little traction."

It's still a far cry from the pomp and circumstance of the motorcades that accompany Gore, and it doesn't quite compare to the scores of television cameras that routinely follow Texas Gov. George W. Bush. But Bradley has proven skilled at forcing the media come to him. He is cashing in on the momentum of his impressive fund-raising totals. As the vice president's campaign struggles to get off the ground, Bradley is planning two more major policy speeches while he still has the attention of the fickle media.

During his campaign kickoff in his hometown of Crystal City, Mo., the former Olympic gold medal winner and NBA star told a story about the countless hours he spent alone in the gym working on his shooting. This is the approach Bill Bradley has taken to running for president. Watching him, you get the sense that campaigning is simply a matter of repetitive motion, a mechanical exercise to be repeated over and over until he gets it right.

The persistence of the Bradley campaign has allowed him to stave off a once-inevitable Gore endorsement from the AFL-CIO. While the Bradley camp is under no illusions about the likelihood of an eventual labor endorsement for Gore, campaign spokesman Eric Hauser said the signs thus far have been promising. "They didn't endorse last winter when Gore thought they were going to, and they didn't endorse in August when Gore thought they were going to. It just shows that people are beginning to listen and that we're making progress."

Clearly, the days of the stealth Bradley candidacy are over. While Gore's attempts to label Bradley the front-runner seem far-fetched and contrived, there is no question that the Democratic race is generating as much if not more interest than the Republican presidential primary. Of course, it wasn't supposed to be this way. Gore has lobbied hard to inherit the political support President Clinton has enjoyed, but he's had a rough go of it thus far.

But will all this attention benefit Bill Bradley? Is he being set up to be knocked down again when his spacy, not-quite-ready-for-prime time persona is broadcast live? Or will voters thrill to the reality of an honest candidate who doesn't bother to hide his big-picture wonkishness, his disdain for back-slapping and his utter unsuitability for the 24/7, sound-bite-driven, all-gladhanding-all-the-time pace of the modern presidential campaign?

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