Ballot Box

The Ghost of Paul Tsongas

BOONE, Iowa–Today the Democratic contest felt a lot like 1992, with Al Gore playing Bill Clinton and Bill Bradley cast involuntarily in the role of Paul Tsongas.

Like Bradley, Tsongas was a high-minded reformer who appealed most strongly to educated, affluent voters in the Northeast. He cultivated a similar image as an anti-politician brave enough to level with voters. And like Bradley, Tsongas tried to make his inverted charisma into a virtue. After he won the New Hampshire primary, Tsongas transcended his status as a media darling and got taken seriously as someone who could actually win the Democratic nomination. But within a few weeks, he was knocked out of the race by a combination of Bill Clinton’s effective demagoguery on Social Security and concerns about his medical condition.

Bradley is now suffering the effects of a similar one-two punch. Over the past few months, Gore has pummeled him using demagogic attacks straight out of the Clinton playbook, beating him up over Medicare and support for farmers. And yesterday, Bradley acknowledged that his irregular heartbeat, a condition known as atrial fibrillation, has been acting up. At a press conference yesterday, Bradley said he has had four episodes since late December. He said that this was nothing to be concerned about, but it sure doesn’t sound like nothing. Bradley has been looking a bit pallid lately, and the fact that he’s just getting around to revealing the problem raises suspicions that he is being less than fully candid about it.

Gore is acting like someone who remembers what happened to Paul Tsongas. His demeanor on the stump reflects the growing consensus that Bradley is floundering and that the battle for the Democratic nomination is, if not quite over, now a largely foregone conclusion. Gore is more than 20 points ahead in Iowa, and he has erased Bradley’s lead in New Hampshire, according to a couple of polls. This has had a subtle effect on Gore’s public persona. The somewhat desperate, insecure-seeming Gore who assaulted Bradley in an excessive way in the early debates has receded, at least for the time being. In his place, the confident, dullish Gore unconcerned about a guy running against him in the primaries has returned to the fore. A piece of Gore campaign propaganda handed out to reporters today refers to the Bradley campaign in the past tense, as in “Bradley Believed Iowa Caucus Critical to His Campaign.” Gore himself is treating Bradley less like a threat and more like a future supporter.

To be sure, Gore still takes the odd swipe at Bradley. “The presidency is not an academic exercise,” he declared this afternoon to the crowd of “family farm” folk in a barn in Perry, Iowa, using one of his favorite lines. Gore also couldn’t resist highlighting Bradley’s impolitic remark that the Iowa caucus rewards “entrenched power.” (Gore says, by contrast, that the Iowa caucus is “about people.”) But there’s not much edge to these jabs, the way there was even a week ago when the campaign was a more plausible horse race. Gore is no longer going for the jugular the way he did in most of the debates. Instead, he’s trying to rig the all-pervasive expectations game in his favor by noting how much more money Bradley has spent in Iowa than he has, and trying to feign a belief that a one-vote win is still a big win for him (in fact, it would constitute a catastrophic reversal).

The Al Gore who isn’t really worried about Bill Bradley is a much more appealing candidate. Speaking without notes or a TelePrompTer, he displays a truly Clintonic depth of knowledge and a command of policy. At Gore’s first appearance this morning, at an environment conference in Des Moines, he talked about global warming and drift-net fishing in a way that was truly informative and mostly lacking in pedantry (though he did go on a bit). After that, Gore visited a hospital, where he gave an equally well-informed analysis of health-care problems. Finally, at a farm in Perry, Iowa, Gore swapped his gray suit and tie for khakis and a barn coat, turned up the treble on his Tennessee accent, and strutted his ag-stuff, explaining that he wanted to step up antitrust enforcement against industrial hog producers. “We need to enforce the Packers and Stockyards Act vigorously,” Gore remarked. George W. Bush might mention something like the Packers and Stockyards Act, too. But with Bush, no one would suspect he knew what he was talking about.

Editor’s note: Jacob Weisberg will continue to file from Iowa throughout the weekend. Check back here for the latest.