Bradley, McCain discuss meeting on campaign reform

By Michael Kranish, Globe Staff, 12/09/99

ASHINGTON - Democrat Bill Bradley and Republican John McCain are moving closer to agreeing on an unusual joint meeting in New Hampshire to highlight their support of overhauling the campaign finance system.

The two presidential candidates could meet as early as next week, campaign aides said yesterday. But the meeting could also highlight the subtle competitive edge between the two. For though the two candidates belong to different parties, they are competing for many of the same voters: independents.

New Hampshire law allows independents to vote in either the Republican or Democratic primary, and campaign finance is a top concern of many independents.

Thus, Senator McCain of Arizona and former Senator Bradley of New Jersey hope to convince Granite Staters they have the best plan to change the way campaigns are financed.

Senior aides for both candidates confirmed they have held discussions this week about whether Bradley and McCain should meet in Claremont, N.H., where President Clinton and then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich met in 1995 and shook hands about the need to rewrite campaign finance laws.

''We have talked to them, and we have had additional conversations,'' McCain spokesman Howard Opinsky said. ''We are hopeful that we can reach agreement.''

Opinsky said the meeting would be worthwhile because ''anytime Senator McCain can talk about getting rid of the undue influence of special interests, it's good for us.''

Bradley spokesman Eric Hauser was more guarded about a meeting, saying, ''We'll see if something can work out. We're looking at it.''

The meeting would give both men a dramatic way to tell voters they are reform-minded candidates who would try to accomplish what other politicians have failed to do.

McCain has long been a co-sponsor of campaign finance legislation, while Bradley has said it is a centerpiece of his campaign. The two agree on the need to ban unlimited party contributions known as ''soft money.'' But they disagree on the best way to overhaul the system. Bradley favors public financing of elections, while McCain opposes that idea.

McCain and Bradley so far have not met during the campaign, nor have they talked on the telephone about a possible meeting, aides said. But McCain, asked this week about getting together with Bradley, responded: ''I would love to do that. My understanding is that my campaign has asked them to do it.''

Fred Wertheimer, who advocates campaign finance overhaul as president of a Washington-based group called Democracy 21, said both McCain and Bradley have been leaders on the issue.

''We have never seen this before on campaign finance to have the issue taken very seriously by leading candidates,'' Wertheimer said. ''In my view, their getting together can only be a plus for the issue.''

It is not clear whether Bradley and McCain would try to reenact the Clinton-Gingrich handshake, because Bradley recently criticized that event as a symbol of what is wrong with American politics.

''Behind every public handshake, like the one in Claremont on this issue, there's always been a secret handshake,'' Bradley said last month. ''That tacit, secret handshake signals an agreement among politicians not to upset a system they use to their advantage.''