As Al Gore's campaign-research team was combing through Bill Bradley's Senate record last summer, it hit upon a nugget of political gold. But not until a few weeks ago did Gore messagemeister Carter Eskew decide the time had come to share that bit of history with the voters of Iowa. "Let me introduce a friend of mine to you," Gore purred to Bradley as a man in dungarees stood up in the audience at their first debate in the state. "Why did you vote against the disaster relief for Chris Petersen when he and thousands of other farmers here in Iowa needed it after those '93 floods?" It stung, and Bradley's only response was to change the subject. So dominant was Gore's performance that day that the top Alpha Male phoned to pay homage. "You looked like a President!" Bill Clinton told him.
Since Gore's old friend Eskew took over his campaign strategy last summer, what was once a messy tangle of infighting advisers with conflicting philosophies, interests and agendas has become an operation with Zen-like focus, throwing Bradley off stride. More than anything else, aides say, Eskew has fostered Gore's instinct to go for the jugular. So quick is Gore to seize an opening that when Bradley groused last week that Iowa rewards "entrenched power," the Vice President was almost instantly on the phone to Eskew: "I want to talk about this today." From the stage of a school gym, Gore, who in his 1988 presidential race skipped Iowa entirely, extolled the virtues of the state's unusual process of picking a nominee. "Fighting for people is what the Iowa caucuses are all about," he thundered.
The momentum has changed so much since last fall that even Gore's gimmicks are working. Gore himself came up with the idea of having a real farmer guest-star at the Iowa debate. And his campaign decided that the best way to blunt Bradley's criticisms of him as an Establishment politician was to extend a hand to Bradley on national TV and challenge him to quit advertising and debate more instead. "A ploy," Bradley said disdainfully, and the pundits agreed. But at a time when television in Iowa and New Hampshire has become a wearying loop of campaign ads, polls and focus groups in those states showed that voters loved Gore's idea.