Underdog's Day

Presidential Contender Bill Bradley Visits Tucson.

FORMER U.S. SEN. Bill Bradley knows how to get a crowd's attention when making a speech: dispense with politics and talk sports. For the first half of the $50-a-head fundraiser for the state Democratic Party in Tucson last week, Bradley shared stories of his days with the Knicks and the U.S. Olympic basketball team.

The 55-year-old Bradley, on the campaign trail looking for an upset win over Vice President Al Gore in next year's presidential primary, drews laughs from the crowd with his anecdotes.

By the end of his speech, which raised almost $17,000 for the state Democratic Party, Bradley gently eased into the political arena, laying out a couple of broad proposals -- universal health care, campaign finance reform -- with few details.

During his visit to Tucson, Bradley picked up endorsements from Mayor George Miller, former Mayor Tom Volgy and former U.S. Rep. Jim McNulty. During a press conference with his three supporters, Bradley sidestepped an opportunity to talk specifics.

"I think there are some issue differences which I will explore in the fall," Bradley said.

For all of his evasiveness on the campaign trail, Bradley is no intellectual lightweight. He graduated with honors from Princeton in 1965 and studied at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. During his three terms in the Senate, he was credited with cleaning up the tax code with the Tax Reform Act of 1986. Of course, much of that reform has been wiped away in the years since, as lawmakers have once again loaded up the tax codes with deductions for their well-heeled constituents.

While he shied away from specific proposals last week, Bradley did hint at one theme he'll drive home in his campaign against Gore.

"I had a life before I got into politics, and I've had a life since I left the Senate," Bradley said. "I've gotten up many mornings in my life and gone to work and never thought of the federal government, like millions of other Americans. And I think that's given me a certain view of who the American people are and the vice president's life has been primarily based in Washington and that's given us different ideas of who the American people are."

But Bradley would never be mistaken for a populist. He's a centrist Democrat who's been successful raising funds on Wall Street and in the legal community. And, at Bank One Ballpark on Thursday night, the candidate wasn't sitting in the cheap seats. He enjoyed the Arizona/Cincinnati game next to D'backs owner Jerry Colangelo.

According to Federal Election Commission reports released in April, Bradley had raised $4.3 million, compared to the $10 million Gore had received from contributors.

While in Tucson, Bradley stressed the importance of Arizona in the primary sweepstakes: "Arizona's an important state in the upcoming presidential election because the primary is going to come somewhere around the area of Super Tuesday."

You'd hardly expect Bradley to dismiss Arizona's importance, particularly as he was picking up endorsements. But the Arizona primary will be a lot more important to Republicans than Democrats, mostly because the Arizona Legislature's date for the state's official primary -- February 22, 2000 -- comes so early that the Democratic National Committee's rules prevent the Democratic candidates from participating.

Given the early date and the presence of two native sons -- Sen. John McCain and former VP Dan Quayle -- the GOP primary will undoubtedly draw national attention. A poor showing by McCain in particular could cripple his campaign, which is one reason Republican Steve Forbes, who won the Arizona GOP primary in 1996, has targeted Arizona as one of four states in his early television blitz.

But the Democratic primary, now scheduled for Saturday, March 11, 2000, will still trail the big early prizes of the compressed campaign timetable, California and New York, although it will fall ahead of Super Tuesday.

"We wanted to do it on February 22, but the DNC (Democratic National Committee) wouldn't allow it to be before the window," says Mark Fleisher, chairman of the Arizona Democratic Party. "We thought (a Saturday date) would give people more of an opportunity to vote and participate, particularly if it's run by the party. It gives people a better chance to work the polls and be involved without taking a day off work, because we have to have people work it."

Fleisher estimates the primary will cost the party $10,000 to $20,000, "while the Republicans get theirs paid for by the state."

Publicly, Bradley says he's not concerned about the primary timetable. "I'll play it as it lies," he told reporters in Tucson.

But the conventional wisdom suggests front-loading the schedule hurts the Democratic process.

"I think it's unfortunate that we're putting them all so early," says Fleisher. "It favors the frontrunners and it also favors the person who has the most money."

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