SEATTLE--At the Sunday morning service at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church here, the Gospel choir was singing ''Victory Is Mine,'' the congregation was on its feet, and the whole edifice seemed to sway to the rhythm of the music and the beat of everyone's clapping hands. Standing in the front row, waiting to speak, Bill Bradley was almost motionless, as if in his private reverie.
That tableau was as revealing as any complex analysis of why the former New Jersey senator's well-conceived and well-financed presidential campaign is coming to an end as a gallant failure.
To the surprise of many, especially after last autumn's surge in the New Hampshire polls and his strong showing in the money chase, Bradley is losing to Vice President Al Gore--largely because he has failed to connect with voters any more than he caught the spirit of the Seattle church.
''If you had told me six months ago that Bradley would be in single digits in our state, I would have said you were crazy,'' state Sen. Jim Brulte, a shrewd California Republican and George Bush backer, told me last week. But tracking polls show Bradley lagging far, far behind Bush, Gore and John McCain in the ''beauty contest'' portion of the March 7 primary, where all candidates appear on the same ballot.
''I'm very surprised,'' Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown, Jr., the former California governor and now Oakland mayor, remarked a few days later. ''He certainly has the intelligence to do the job.'' Brown, who battled establishment candidates in his futile bids for the Democratic presidential nomination, is one of many left-leaning liberals who have jumped aboard the Gore bandwagon, leaving Bradley isolated. ''If you really want to go against the establishment,'' Brown said, ''you have to sharpen the issues. And that's hard to do when you've been in the Senate for three terms (as Bradley was). You get too embedded in strategy.''
In retrospect, it is clear that Bradley chose the wrong strategy in challenging Gore first in the January Iowa caucuses--and McCain made the right guess in skipping Iowa. The mistake was compounded by the slow Bradley response to Gore's furious attack on his health care plan and by his complete capitulation in the Iowa debate to Gore's dubious claim that Bradley had voted against federal aid to Iowa flood victims.
Bradley had made a big television buy in Iowa when he thought he had a chance, and decided he had to match it with a comparable investment of time. But his prolonged absence from New Hampshire in the final two weeks before its primary cost him badly--in large part because McCain was always there wooing the same independent voters Bradley needed. In the end, labor and the teachers delivered Iowa for Gore, McCain won New Hampshire over Bush by 19 points, thanks to a flood of independents, and Bradley fell an agonizing 4 points short of catching Gore. Media and public attention swung to McCain. And, to Bradley's dismay, the close Republican contest has absorbed virtually all the coverage ever since.
At a deeper level, Bradley was also at a disadvantage when measured against Bush, Gore and McCain. In the early, face-to-face-campaigning phase of the presidential contest, TV ads count for less than attracting and energizing live audiences of voters. Even when he was doing well, Bradley was the least passionate of the four major contenders--and his energy clearly flagged as the race went on. Supporters admired his modest, soft-sell approach of simply putting himself and his policies forward and letting voters decide whether to embrace them. But when Gore heeded the early signs of a Bradley threat and kicked his own campaigning into a higher gear, Bradley could not or would not follow. The heart arrhythmia problem that surfaced in December was of no great significance in itself, but it heightened Democrats' concern whether Bradley was up to the campaign challenge.
Jesse Mittleman, a Bainbridge Island retiree, told me Saturday that after much wavering, he chose Gore because ''he's a little stronger. You can see him taking charge in a difficult situation more than you can see Bradley.''
There is much to honor in Bradley's campaign: his honesty about racial issues, his willingness to think big about fixing the dysfunctional health care system. His human qualities came through at times--when patiently coaching young basketball players at a Boys and Girls Club in suburban Bellevue on Sunday, for example. He would make an exemplary university head. But the career that was marked with such promise, from schoolboy days onward, will not reach the presidency this year.
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