Bottom line for Bradley: dollar bills

By Joan Venocchi, Globe Columnist, 10/26/99

oney always talks. And in the case of former US Senator Bill Bradley this is what it's saying: Welcome to presidential politics.

No votes have been cast, just dollar bills. And the bottom line is that Bradley is a serious presidential contender, based on the most critical of current American political standards: cash.

Unlike Dan Quayle and Elizabeth Dole on the Republican side, Bradley can definitely raise it. And that makes him a problem for Vice President Al Gore. This is true even in Massachusetts, a state with deep ties to the Clinton administration.

The ex-senator has nearly caught up with a sitting vice president in fund-raising in Massachusetts. On paper, Gore remains the mainstream presidential candidate of the Democratic Party. But mainstream financial support is flowing toward the insurgent, demonstrating another axiom of American politics:

For politicians, it's about winning. For supporters, it's about being with a winner. For both sides, therefore, it's about money.

Consider the news that Chad Gifford, the longtime BankBoston executive -- now president and chief operating officer of FleetBoston Financial -- is hosting a Bradley fund-raiser in December. The two men went to Princeton and both belonged to Cottage Club, a prestigious private club with a reputation for admitting affluent Southern gentlemen and Yankees from moneyed families.

The Princeton connection may explain their new political alliance, but it doesn't explain it all. As relayed through a Fleet spokesman, ''Chad has become increasingly frustrated with the national Republican leadership. He feels that Bill Bradley is a man who understands free enterprise and will bring moral and intellectual leadership which would be very exciting.''

Translation: Bankers don't back renegades. Gore is so weakened by the headlines and polls questioning his candidacy that big players in the business and political mainstream now see Bradley as the possible Democratic presidential nominee. So it's cover-their-bets time.

David D'Alessandro, who heads John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co., puts it more bluntly than would many others in his position. ''While all executives have personal beliefs, I think any institution would be wise to cover itself with all lead candidates,'' he says. ''I have contributed to George W. Bush and to John McCain, and I will also contribute to Bill Bradley and Al Gore. ... Politicians will forgive you if you support their opponent - as long as you support them, too.''

For the people who underwrite American politics, it's most important to be with the winner. It's less important to be with the candidate who most reflects personal views and values. This is a curious, but important concept. It explains, more than anything else, why politicians will say whatever it takes to be considered a winner. That gets them the money, which gets them the opportunity to make their case and actually win. That's where Bill Bradley is now, as Massachusetts now proves.

It is fashionable in state Democratic circles to be with Bradley or want to be with him. ''I'd be supporting him if I didn't have these Gore connections,'' says one highly connected Democrat in the state. ''People are very worried. They are afraid Gore can't win. They don't know if Bradley can.'' The uncertainty about Gore is giving Bradley ''traction,'' to use a word he does. Will he gain it or lose it?

How will an aloof, laid-back, and laconic Bradley come off against Gore in debates? When he's up against Gore, be sure to close your eyes and picture him up against George W. Bush, the likely GOP presidential nominees. How does Bradley explain his easy access to Wall Street and big-money donors, with campaign rhetoric that runs left of Gore? How will that rhetoric play in a general election campaign against Bush?

It's a political reality in 1999. You can't get heard without buying the microphone. Bradley bought his. It has been funded for many reasons, but chiefly because the power brokers of American politics - those who bankroll it - perceive Gore as weak. But now that Bradley has the mike, what are we going to hear? The moneybags have voted. The rest of us have not.

Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist.