There's a moment worth waiting for during every Democratic presidential debate these days--the moment when Bill Bradley's feelings for Al Gore bob into view like a big chunk of ice on a cold gray sea. "Maybe you weren't in the loop, Al." "The point is, Al--and I don't know if you get this--but a political campaign is not just a performance for people." "Let me explain to you, Al, how the private sector works." At such times, Bradley looks at the Vice President as if Gore had suddenly morphed into an overripe mackerel; Bradley's voice, normally so flat and affectless, drips with sarcasm and a condescension that borders on contempt. Because to Bradley, who really does see himself as a better class of politician, Gore is an opportunist driven by ambition instead of principle--the kind of candidate who will demand on Wednesday that his Pentagon leaders support gays in the military, then backpedal on Friday. "Bill sees Gore as a smaller guy, a smaller guy all around," says someone close to Bradley. "Gore leapt at the vice presidency, a job Bill would never have taken, because [Gore]'s devoted to furthering his career over all else." And last fall, when Gore saw that Bradley's high-minded pitch was working in New Hampshire, he stole it and started talking about "elevating our democracy" by running "a different kind of campaign"--all Bradley-speak. Sometimes Bradley can't stand him.
And sometimes the feeling is mutual. Gore views Bradley as a slave to his own self-regard, a man whose sanctimony is an ineffective and even hypocritical approach to politics. Gore's lieutenants love to point out Bradley's contradictions: he spent $2 million on his polling operation in his 1990 Senate race--an early attempt at Clinton-style values polling--yet claims to hate poll-driven politics. He calls himself a crusader against corporate tax loopholes, yet came out in support of ethanol subsidies that chiefly benefit one conglomerate, Archer Daniels Midland, because he wants to curry favor with Iowa farmers. "What's fatal," says a Gore strategist, "is holding yourself up as superior."
The candidates' disdain was on display last week as the battle for the nomination began to crackle. The Iowa caucuses are two weeks away, the New Hampshire primary three weeks away. Young Gore and Bradley volunteers are starting to tussle in the streets, and the candidates are tussling onstage. Last Wednesday in Durham, N.H., and on Saturday in Johnston, Iowa, Gore was hammering away at Bradley's health-care plan, as usual, and Bradley was sneering back at him, employing his recent tactic of responding to Gore attacks by pointing out their theatricality. In these instances, though, Gore didn't sigh or groan while Bradley spoke. And he didn't even distort Bradley's positions. He merely pointed out that Bradley's proposed monthly health-care subsidy, the one that's supposed to replace Medicaid, wouldn't be enough to buy coverage for poor people in either state. So when Bradley gave him that dead-fish look, the former Senator just came off as peevish, like a college professor who hates it when a grad student challenges his lecture.