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Jewish World Review Sept. 30, 1999 /20 Tishrei, 5760

Chris Matthews

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Who'll spin political gold in Golden State Gore or Bradley? -- AL GORE AND BILL BRADLEY. Call them the Golden State warriors.

Early next March, this well-matched pair of Democratic hopefuls will meet in California for a pivotal 2000 primary contest.

Should Bradley, the NBA star-turned-senator, win in California, a prospect that grows greater by the day, the vice president would be lucky to survive the week.

The New Hampshire primary is Feb. 7. A month later comes the March 7 slew of primaries, including those in New York and California.

Bradley's surprising strength in early polling he is neck-and-neck with Gore in New Hampshire and New York has already forced the Gore team on the defensive. Rather than challenge the poll figures in the East, the Gore people talk down Bradley's high Empire State poll numbers as a "favorite son thing" and they talk up what they regard as Gore's firewall in the South and West, especially in California.

Gale Kaufman, the Bradley campaign's senior California advisor, mocks such efforts as the "ever-changing strategy" of a Gore team forced to play catch-up.

"Clinton's the key," she said, explaining Bradley's surge in the polls in an interview last week. "Clinton fatigue. It's huge. By next March, the only thing that's not going to happen is that Clinton fatigue will not have gone down. People are not going to be any less unhappy with what's gone on."

Bradley, she argued, is positively lighthearted about not having to carry Bill and Hillary Clinton around with him.

"He says what he thinks. He looks very comfortable with himself."

She loved watching her candidate turn the tables on ABC's Sam Donaldson, Cokie Roberts and George F. Will last Sunday by inquiring if they used illegal drugs.

In her Sacramento office, the veteran Democratic consultant laughed and said, "I thought it was hysterical."

The Bradley forces have a fresh and powerful reason for such giddiness. A new NBC poll in New York state shows the three-term New Jersey senator (and former New York Knicks basketball forward) beating the Republican front-runner, Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

The same poll has Gore trailing the former president's son.

The nationwide numbers are equally stunning. While Gore holds a 53-32 lead over Bradley, that 21-point edge is 13 points less than when summer began.

But it's the state-by-state figures, especially those in New Hampshire and New York, that illustrate the near and present danger facing the vice president. If Bradley beats him on Feb. 7 and follows up with victory in New York, Gore will need to carry California that same day or risk political eradication.

Kiki Moore, the campaign spokeswoman for Gore who dismissed Bradley's New York surge as a "favorite-son thing" also belittled his endorsement last week by New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. She says the vice president is prepared to take on Bradley face to face before the March 7 California balloting.

"I expect there to be debates," she says.

The Bradley camp appears eager for such a big-screen display of the two candidates' styles.

"Gore does not have the luxury to just go out there and have a good time," says Kaufman.

Bradley's campaigner is talking about the 53 trips Gore has made to California since becoming vice president.

"Part of the reason is the official business part of the trips," she says. "Part is his different style."

His highly restrained "style" has been a major source of Gore's troubles. While neither candidate can match Clinton's prowess as a political stumper, Gore faces a far greater need to distinguish himself. Unless people get a distinctive notion of the man, they will continue to view him as simply a carry-over of the two-term Clintons.

Gore will face the deepening indictment voiced last week by Moynihan that he "can't be elected president." Even the most loyal Clinton fan knows that "Four More Years!" is hardly the most winsome campaign slogan for a Democratic win in 2000.

March 7 is Gore's deadline for achieving his transformation from caterpillar to butterfly. The Golden State is the place where he needs to do it.

"California's important," spokeswoman Moore said in an interview last week. "How could it not be?"

JWR contributor Chris Matthews, chief of the San Francisco Examiner's Washington Bureau, is host of "Hardball" on CNBC. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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