By ART CULLEN
Al Gore gave Bill Bradley the business, as the Beaver would say, during their first joint appearance in Iowa Saturday night, Oct. 9.
Gore rapped his challenger for not toeing the party line during his years in the Senate, for not pledging his fealty to farmers until he found Iowa, and for dropping out to consider a third party bid in 1996.
Bradley delivered a speech about moral imperatives and justice, and afterwards said that Gore's attacks demonstrated his lack of big ideas.
Their contrasts were on stark display at the annual Jefferson-Jackson Dinner for a record-setting crowd of more than 3,000.
Gore marched with a hooting contingent down Grand Avenue arm in arm with Sen. Tom Harkin, Attorney General Tom Miller and Secretary of State Chet Culver. They were followed by a drum and dance corps from Des Moines that made quite a racket outside the Polk County Convention Center.
This was the retooled Gore, revitalized and unstiffened after moving his digs from Washington to Tennessee and dumping many of his staffers. Gore is said to still hold the edge in Iowa and is intent on keeping it, while Bradley leads him in New Hampshire. This is a vice president on the defensive against an articulate and thoughtful opponent.
Gore pulled out all the stops in an attempt to energize the Iowa party faithful, most of whom already have pledged their allegiance. The hall was packed with Gore button-holders and was plastered with Gore posters.
Bradley, meanwhile, wandered around while barely drawing a crowd. He emerged from an elevator with a couple aides and made his way with former NBA star Bill Walton to the convention hall.
Those not wearing buttons seemed more curious about Bradley. One of them was a lawyer from Fort Madison who said she switched from the GOP when Bradley entered the race. In all his statements in Iowa Bradley has sought to capitalize on Clinton fatigue, grounding his themes in morality and principles over politics.
The son of a small-town Republican banker from Missouri, Bradley said he became a Democrat in 1964 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
"I became a Democrat because it was the party of justice," he said. "Justice wedded with hope produces trust."
His talk, delivered as he looked over half-glasses, was philosophical and personal. He talked of his days on legion teams when his black teammates were refused service, and how it struck him as wrong.
"We must seek a meaning that goes deeper than our material possessions," Bradley said. "We should never lose heart about who we are or what our course is."
Then he touched on his few "big issues".
(ogonek) Family farms. "The only balance to private power is public power. I want to use public power on their side. I want to see if those packers are in restraint of trade."
(ogonek) Gun control. Register and license handguns. Ban Saturday night specials.
(ogonek) Health care. Forty-five million Americans have no health insurance; 25 percent of farmers are without. "We can do better than that in this country."
(ogonek) Campaign finance reform. "Money distorts the process. The linchpin to everything in a democracy is campaign finance reform."
"I want to grab people and convince them we can do the big things again," Bradley said. "More imperatives shouldn't scare us; it should energize us. It takes discipline to be positive. But I believe to the deepest core of my being that the American people want that."
Gore took a different calculus as he took the stage.
First off, he immediately challenged Bradley to weekly debates. He demanded that Bradley raise his hand if he agrees. Bradley rubbed his eyes.
"Come on, we should really do this," Gore said. He kept after it.
"I really welcome a close contest," the veep said three times over.
He proceeded to hit Bradley where it might hurt with party activists, those who will attend the first-in-the-nation caucuses.
In revivalist style, he said he would never support school vouchers. Bradley had said he would explore the idea.
"I will veto anything like that that comes across my desk," Gore pledged.
"My cause has always been working families. And I am proud to say that even in the hardest hour, I never gave up, never turned back and never walked away. I chose to stay and fight."
He chided Bradley for supporting "Reaganomics," for opposing the Iowa sacred cow ethanol, and for toying with the notion of leaving the party.
"Some walked away. I elected to stay and fight," Gore said.
"I fought alongside Tom Harkin for changes in the Republicans' Freedom to Farm Act, which is really the Freedom to Foreclose Act," Gore said.
Gore did break a tie vote in the Senate for an ethanol tax break that ended up helping Archer Daniels Midland more than corn farmers. And he may have fought with Tom Harkin on behalf of farmers, but Bill Clinton apparently did not notice; the Administration has not lifted a finger to aid farmers.
The vice president may have cause to be defensive. True, he has the Iowa party bigwigs in tow. But Iowans aren't much for tent revivals, and they do like to hear from politicians of substance. Everyone who's anyone said Gore won the show Saturday night. But the more people think about it, the more they will wonder. One would hope that talk of racial unity, the pursuit of justice, rebuilding trust and defining moral imperatives still means something to voters.