Bradley Voters Find New Champion in Obama
By Alec MacGillis
CONCORD, N.H. -- Barack Obama is being joined on the campaign trail today in New Hampshire by Bill Bradley. The endorsement by the former New Jersey senator may verge on the superfluous for Obama, who with one day until the primary is now leading Hillary Clinton in the polls here and doing particularly well among the kind of independent voters who took a liking to Bradley in his 2000 challenge of Al Gore.
Yet the pairing of the two men on the cusp of what may well be another big victory for Obama offers a moment of vindication for the many Obama supporters here who also backed Bradley in 2000, only to see him fall just short of beating Gore in the primary. Obama echoes Bradley in many regards: He, too, is a cerebral Ivy League senator with a conciliatory, post-partisan message; he also appeals to liberal, upscale Democrats as well as to independents and some Republicans; and he is also taking on a pillar of the Democratic establishment who is running, with some hesitation, on the record of the Clinton administration. Heck, they both even play basketball.
But there are, of course, differences as well -- which helps explain why Obama may be on the cusp of pulling off the grand upset that eluded Bradley. Obama's youth and singular background give him an air of novelty that Bradley lacked, and have helped him tap into the youth vote to a far greater extent. While Bradley's campaign was quite well funded, thanks in part to strong Wall Street support, his organization fell short of what Obama has assembled. Most notably, while Obama can be every bit as professorial as Bradley, he can also get rhetorically "fired up" in a way the phlegmatic Bradley never could.
To Bruce Harwood, a lawyer who put up members of Bradley's advance team at his home in Bedford during the 2000 campaign, the contrast is clear. "Obama is less cynical than Bradley. Bradley had been around the track so many times that he knew the weight of the opposition," Harwood said. "Obama has that extra kick of energy you have when you haven't been beaten down by Senate committees for 16 years. Obama has more spunk -- he can project himself in a way that Bradley doesn't."
Harwood added, "You had to get to know Bradley to be inspired -- whereas Obama inspires you to get to know him."
Bradley's defeat, Harwood recalls, was a "heartbreak." He was leading the polls several months before the primary, drawing support from independents and Democrats who had their doubts about Gore. But Gore hammered away at Bradley, chiding him for leaving the Senate and attacking his ambitious health-care plan as undermining Medicaid. Bradley's defense of himself was mild, to the dismay of supporters who found Gore's attacks unfair and inaccurate. By primary day, many of the independents who liked Bradley decided to vote instead in the Republican primary, for John McCain. (More than 60 percent of independents voted in the Republican primary, whereas a majority now tell pollsters they will vote in the Democratic one.)
Nonetheless, Bradley lost to Gore by only four points, a respectable showing against a sitting vice president with the state's Democratic establishment behind him. But with all the attention going to McCain's big upset of George W. Bush, Bradley got none of the "moral victory" boost that previous second-place finishers like Gene McCarthy and George McGovern had gotten in New Hampshire. With a gap in the calendar until the next primary votes, he lacked a chance to regain momentum, and his campaign withered away.
To this day, many of Bradley's supporters believe that he could have won the nomination had he gotten a bounce out of New Hampshire, and that, as someone with appeal to independents and male voters, he could have beaten Bush that fall. But now, that second-guessing is being put aside, as they increasingly sense that they may just achieve what they didn't eight years ago, when they came closer than many realized to rattling a Democratic establishment that now looks on the verge of toppling.
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