In vital period, Bradley might outspend Gore

By Walter V. Robinson, Globe Staff, 11/15/99

hen Vice President Al Gore visited Texas a year ago to woo influential Democrats, he tried fruitlessly to dissuade former state comptroller John Sharp from signing on with Bill Bradley, Gore's sole challenger for the party's presidential nomination.

``The vice president said to me, `Look, it's impossible for Bill Bradley to win New Hampshire. Look how far behind he is. And as vice president, I will raise so much money that Bill Bradley won't be able to raise money,''' Sharp recalled last week.

Gore was wrong on both counts. In New Hampshire, the upstart Bradley has pulled even with or ahead of President Clinton's heir apparent in several polls. But more ominously for Gore, Bradley now appears likely to have several million dollars more to spend than Gore during the six-week period between Feb. 1 and March 14, when the nomination is likely to be decided. Each candidate may spend the $40.2 million permitted under federal election law during the primaries. But well before Gore began to take Bradley seriously, Gore's campaign spent lavishly, disbursing millions for high-end office space, $15,000-a-month salaries, expensive travel, and squads of advance staff for every vice presidential appearance.

In contrast, the former senator from New Jersey has campaigned parsimoniously, often traveling with a single aide and carrying his own garment bag. More recently, Sharp recalled, Bradley arrived in Texas with two staff members. ``I thought he was getting a little bit uppity,'' the Texan said.

The consequences of Gore's miscalculation are unprecedented in modern-day presidential politics: When voters start paying close attention in about 10 weeks ' time, Bradley may have between $5 million and $8 million more to spend than Gore over the following two months, according to Federal Election Commission reports, and forecasts by independent analysts and officials of the two campaigns.

To a host of politicians who have worked for past insurgent candidates who soared early only to fall back to earth for lack of resources, Bradley's financial competitiveness suggests a tectonic shift in the landscape of presidential campaigning.

``Normally, challengers like Bill Bradley dry up and blow away because of the huge advantages incumbent vice presidents have during the nominating process,'' said Thomas D. Rath, a New Hampshire Republican who in 1988 backed Senator Bob Dole only to see his candidate overwhelmed by then-Vice President Bush. ``But Gore has been wasteful, even profligate, in his spending. Now Bradley has the capacity to go the distance.''

William G. Carrick, who ran Representative Richard A. Gephardt's unsuccessful 1988 campaign against the well-financed effort of Massachusetts Governor Michael S. Dukakis, said in an interview that Bradley's ability to compete dollar-for-dollar all but ensures a drawn-out battle for the nomination.

More typically, Carrick said, ``challengers do not really lose the nomination contest to the front-runner. They simply run out of money.''

The conventional wisdom, which a year ago gave Bradley little chance against Gore, still holds that Gore, with the support of party leaders and help from labor unions, is likely to prevail over Bradley in the end, though not without a protracted battle. And in most national polls, Gore still holds a sizable lead over Bradley.

Chris Lehane, who is Gore's spokesman, said that much of what Gore has spent has been invested wisely, in critical field operations in states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and California, and will produce a bumper crop of convention delegates once voters go to the polls. And Steve Grossman, a Gore supporter who until recently was Democratic National chairman, made much the same point, saying, ``Al Gore may be outspent by Bill Bradley in the last few months of the campaign. But I don't believe for a nanosecond that Al Gore will be out-organized.''

Yet many Democratic officeholders are withholding their endorsements. And while the arcane arithmetic of the delegate allocation process argues against an early knockout, especially by the challenger, some Democrats believe, and some Gore advisers and supporters fear, that Bradley may be able to use his husbanded campaign funds to turn conventional wisdom on its head once more.

Gregory L. Schneiders, a former aide to President Carter who is neutral in the Bradley-Gore contest, said that if Bradley wins the Feb. 1 New Hampshire primary, Gore might ``go into a downward spiral.'' Expressing their own worst fears, two of Gore's advisers said privately that if Bradley prevails in New Hampshire and can parlay his money and momentum into victories in the two biggest primary contests on March 7, California and New York, there could be a move by party leaders to persuade Gore to abandon his candidacy.

Depending on how Bradley chooses to spend his money, the challenger could mount advertising campaigns in some states where Gore may not be able to counter. Or if the struggle drags on, the Gore campaign may run out of money before Bradley does.

Even so, there is no doubting the fact that Bradley's fund-raising prowess has reenergized Gore and his campaign. Over the past several weeks, the vice president has become a more aggressive campaigner; his headquarters staff has been halved and salaries have been trimmed. To save even more money, the campaign even relocated from an expensive downtown Washington office building to Nashville.

But, fiscally, much of the damage is done. Said Carrick: ``In the Clinton-Gore campaign in 1992, the kids were sleeping on floors. But after all those years in the White House, they're not used to husbanding money. The culture demands that they spend. It's hard for Al Gore to turn that culture around.''

In Des Moines, Iowa, for instance, Gore's campaign is paying top dollar, $4,200 a month, for a downtown campaign headquarters. Across town, Bill Bradley's campaign office is so modest, a single large room for $500 a month, that its walls lack paint.

Though Gore now finds Bradley's thriftiness something to emulate, cutting costs has been difficult. Simply moving a 50-person staff to Nashville costs money. What's more, the Gore campaign was sufficiently certain early on that Gore would be the party standard bearer that his campaign is now stuck with a lease through the year 2000 for the Washington headquarters it has abandoned. The cost: $59,069 a month.

Lehane said the campaign is trying to sublet the space. ``It's hard to reduce expenses. It's much easier to keep them from growing in the first place,'' Gina Glantz, who is Bradley's campaign manager, said of her rivals.

In New Hampshire, Glantz's tightfistedness is also evident: While the Gore campaign has nine offices across the state, Bradley's campaign makes do with two. Bradley's operatives even use cell phones for traditional phone banks. The reason: To save the $1,000 deposit the phone company demands for each line it installs.

The numbers both campaigns reported to the FEC through Sept. 30 suggest the dimensions of the deficit Gore may face. As of that date, Gore had outraised Bradley by more than $5 million. But the vice president's campaign had spent $14.5 million to Bradley's $8.5 million by that point.

That might not matter if Gore had outraised Bradley by 3-to-1 or 4-to-1 as many Democrats had expected. On the GOP side of the ledger, for instance, Texas Governor George W. Bush had a 6-to-1 fund-raising advantage on Sept. 30 over Senator John McCain of Arizona, who is considered his most serious challenger.

But Bradley matched Gore's fund-raising in the second and third quarters, and even the Gore staff expects Bradley to outraise the vice president in the three-month period that ends Dec. 31.

Underscoring his ability to raise large amounts of money, Bradley raised $1.5 million yesterday at a Madison Square Garden fund-raiser that featured some of the basketball stars he played with during his career with the New York Knicks. Last week, the Bradley campaign surpassed $1 million in donations raised from the Internet.

With Bradley now expected to raise and spend the $40.2 million maximum, Gore's heavy spending this year will leave Bradley with the ability to spend about $6 million more during the primary season, by many estimates. Carrick, who ran the Gephardt campaign, said the deeper pockets will allow Bradley to make large media buys in some states _ ``a tremendous advantage,'' he said. Also, he said, Gore's treasury might force him to shortchange some key states, like Georgia, North Carolina, and Michigan.

Already, some Democratic strategists predict that Bradley's resources may prompt Gore to mount only a token campaign in New York, where Bradley already leads in polls; and spend more than planned to try to deny Bradley victory in New Hampshire.