Bradley, Gore step up war of words

VP shifts tone, responds to criticism on fund-raising

By Susan Milligan and Bob Hohler, Globe Staff, 1/31/2000

OMERSWORTH, N.H. - An angry Al Gore finally fired back at Bill Bradley yesterday, as the Democratic rivals all but labeled each other liars and continued their unlikely showdown over two issues - abortion and campaign fund-raising - on which they almost entirely agree.

With some polls suggesting that the Democratic primary race is tightening in the last days before the New Hampshire primary, Gore abruptly abandoned the restraint he had demonstrated in recent days as Bradley waged an escalating assault on the vice president's honesty and integrity.

In the latest volley, Bradley accused Gore yesterday of falling ''into bed with special interests'' and called on the vice president to fully explain his role in the ''disgrace'' of the 1996 campaign fund-raising scandal.

''Senator Bradley has attempted to manufacture differences where there are none,'' Gore told more than 1,000 supporters at the Hilltop Equestrian Center barn in Somersworth. ''Instead of character, courage, and commitment, we have manipulative attack after manipulative attack.''

Gore has seemed rattled in the late days of the election by Bradley's unrelenting counterattack, which began last week in the final debate before the primary.

Bradley, who is counting on a strong showing here to sustain his insurgent candidacy, said he launched the offensive after silently enduring for months Gore's attacks on his record. After battering Gore for three days over the vice president's former opposition to abortion, Bradley yesterday opened fire on a new front, zeroing in on the 1996 scandal.

Bradley, speaking to an overflow crowd at Franklin Pierce Law Center in Concord, said the 1996 abuses were ''so tragic'' because they damaged the Democratic Party's ''identity and credibility.''

Waving a copy of a story from the Feb. 7 issue of Fortune magazine about Gore's 1996 fund-raising at a Buddhist temple near Los Angeles and the vice president's association with key figures in a federal investigation of the scandal, Bradley said, ''Quite frankly, I think more explanation is needed about his participation, and I believe that unless that explanation is forthcoming, then the public will reject a candidacy next fall that fails to come to terms with this circumstance.''

Questioning Gore's electability, Bradley said, ''Unless we clean up our own house, Republicans are going to clean that house up in the fall.''

Meanwhile, Gore, sometimes shouting, rejoined: ''Today, the attack from Senator Bradley is on campaign finance reform. This, coming from a man whose fund-raising has been strongly criticized.''

Waving his arms to stir the crowd, Gore said, ''Why did Senator Bradley raise these issues to divide Democrats? Maybe it's because he can't answer real questions from real people about the very real problems we need to be facing,'' Gore said, eliciting a loud roar from the crowd, perhaps the biggest group he has drawn in recent weeks.

Bradley, appearing on ABC's ''This Week,'' resisted several efforts by reporters for him to call Gore a liar for his assertion last week that he has always supported abortion rights. But Bradley would say only that Gore's statement was ''not true.''

Bradley produced two letters on Saturday that Gore had written to constituents - one in 1984, the other in 1987 - in which Gore said abortion was ''arguably the taking of a human life.'' In the 1984 letter, Gore said he was personally opposed to abortion.

In an interview with the Globe the same day, Gore declined to say whether he opposed abortion, calling the question irrelevant if one believes, as he does, that abortion is a decision to be made by a woman. Gore pointed to his record of support for abortion rights, going back more than a decade.

But the attack, coupled with Bradley's charges about Gore's fund-raising practices, clearly put Gore on the defensive for the first time in weeks.

Yesterday, Gore moved very close to unleashing the type of personal attack on Bradley that he has accused Bradley of making. Gore said, as he has in the past, that ''I haven't questioned his character, and I will not. I haven't questioned his integrity, and I will not.''

Both candidates, meanwhile, summoned allies to stump for them in the Granite State.

On Gore's behalf, Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, characterized Bradley's attacks as an act of desperation in his uphill fight against Gore.

''I am very disappointed about what I am seeing come out of Senator Bradley's campaign operation,'' he told the crowd at the equestrian center. ''It says that when the going gets tough, and you find out you're not winning, that's not the time to get desperate.''

Since Bradley has accepted ''$2.7 million in speaking fees'' from corporations, Harkin added, ''I don't need a lecture from'' him on campaign finance reform.

Former Labor secretary Robert Reich, a Bradley supporter, told the Concord crowd, that he was ''very proud'' to have served in the Clinton-Gore administration. ''But I'm not proud of this administration on this issue,'' he said of the campaign finance abuses. ''This is not only about campaign finance. It's also about truth telling and integrity.''

The Gore campaign also produced a statement by congressional Democratic leaders, urging Bradley not to make negative attacks that could weaken the Democrats in November.

Bradley's ''campaign has taken a sharp negative turn, and veered into the kind of negative, personal attacks he has repeatedly denounced,'' said the statement by House minority leader Richard Gephardt, Democrat of Illinois, and Senate minority leader Tom Daschle, Democrat of South Dakota.

''As Democrats, we urge that Senator Bradley's campaign remain focused on the issues, and that he abandon negative, personal attacks that do not bring credit to this nomination contest or the Democratic party.''

Bradley responded by releasing quotes from Gephardt in 1988 complaining about Gore's negative campaigning when both were seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.

''You're sounding more like Al Haig than Al Gore,'' Gephardt said in 1988.

Things got nasty outside the barn after Gore's speech. Senator Bob Kerrey, Democrat of Nebraska, and Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York, had come to the event to defend Bradley.

Harkin, Democrat of Iowa and a Gore supporter, came barreling out of the barn to rebut them. Other Gore supporters, a couple of whom appeared to be volunteers, made derisive comments about Nadler's weight, and called Kerrey, who recently announced his retirement, ''a quitter.''

''I don't want any holier-than-thou lectures,'' Harkin told his congressional colleagues.

Gore campaign spokesman Chris Lehane, informed of the Gore volunteers' comments about Nadler and Kerrey, said, ''They're volunteers. They have a First Amendment right to say what they want.''