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Jewish World Review Jan. 26, 2000 /19 Shevat, 5760

Roger Simon

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Bradley running on formaldehyde -- MANCHESTER, N.H. -- After Bill Bradley had finished speaking, a man stood up in the audience to praise him. "Bill Bradley is a man who knows how to change his game plan when it gets down to the last two minutes!" the man said.

The audience applauded, but when Bradley replied he said: "The last two minutes of the game is the worst time to change your game plan!"

Which is pure Bill Bradley. From the beginning, he has been the man with the plan: He would raise a lot of money, he would campaign on big, sweeping, important issues, and he would expand the electoral universe to include those who usually didn't show up to vote in Democratic primaries.

This seemed to work for a while -- at least it got Bradley's poll numbers up -- but Bradley lost Iowa to Al Gore on Monday, and now, winning New Hampshire next Tuesday has become critical to Bradley's presidential ambitions.

Perhaps his original plan was flawed. Perhaps something is lacking in the campaign or the campaigner. Or, perhaps, everything about the Bradley campaign is terrific, but Al Gore has merely been better.

It doesn't matter. The solution for Bradley is still the same: You change. You adapt. Or you die.

In politics, candidates reinvent themselves all the time. The most famous reinvention came in 1988, after George Bush got clobbered in the Iowa caucuses. He had won the state eight years before, but now he had come in third. Dan Rather called it a "nightmare." Tom Brokaw said it was "an embarrassing defeat." Bernard Shaw called it "a stunning upset." The Des Moines Register said it represented "a worst-case situation."

With the New Hampshire primary just eight days away, Bush could have stuck with his game plan, but instead he took off his coat and tie, put on a parka and a green and white baseball cap from East Coast Lumber and went to the Cuzzin Ritchie's Truck Stop in New Hampshire.

There he drove an 18-wheel Mack truck -- slowly and with two Secret Service agents clinging to the sides and looking somewhat ill. He had a friendly snowball fight with reporters, he invited them to his suite for drinks and he transformed himself from the "wimp" to the "regular guy."

It didn't matter if the transformation was sincere or not. People appreciated the effort. "Contrary to popular belief," Daniel J. Boorstin once wrote, "Barnum's great discovery was not how easy it was to deceive the public, but rather how much the public enjoyed being deceived. Especially if they could see how it was being done. They were flattered that anyone would use such ingenuity to entertain them."

There are many examples of politicians with too much principle or pride (or stubbornness) to change. Mike Dukakis was one and Bob Dole was another. They both got clobbered by opponents who were only too willing to adapt to what the situation demanded.

Bill Bradley needs to adapt. He needs to be bolder, more vigorous, and make more of a connection with voters.

His aides say he will do none of these things. They say it is not needed. They say he has a game plan and is sticking to it.

The problem with this was brought home Wednesday by a headline on the front page of the Manchester Union-Leader, the only newspaper that circulates statewide in New Hampshire. The headline said: "Gore hits trail as Bradley rests."

This is not the time for Bradley to take it easy. He needs to silence questions about his health by doing vigorous things. (What did he do in Iowa? He went to a bowling alley, but did not bowl. He went to a basketball game, but did not even dribble a ball.)

Al Gore is popping around New Hampshire "running on adrenaline" as he puts it.

By comparison, Bill Bradley seems to be running on formaldehyde. He is not a man given to stunts. He is not a man given to change. He is not a man given to surrendering to the process.

He does things his way and on his timetable.

And in so doing, he gives every appearance of being one of those people who would rather be right than president.

Trouble is, such people usually end up being neither.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate