- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 22, 2000

NEW YORK Bill Bradley tried to stop his free fall in the polls last night by hammering Al Gore on race relations in a raucous Democratic debate that stole the spotlight from Republicans for the first time in weeks.

The former New Jersey senator came out swinging in the opening moments of his eighth debate with the vice president, which was held at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem.

The Rev. Al Sharpton began the freewheeling faceoff by asking what concrete steps the candidates would take to end police brutality and racial profiling without raising crime.

"Why doesn't he walk down the hall now and have President Clinton issue an executive order" to end racial profiling, said Mr. Bradley, reprising a challenge from an earlier debate. "I am questioning why you haven't done that or why you haven't made this happen in the last seven and a half years."

Mr. Gore tried to turn the question against Mr. Bradley, who represented New Jersey in the U.S. Senate for 18 years.

"You know, racial profiling practically began in New Jersey, Senator Bradley," the vice president said to boisterous applause and laughter. "The African-American mayor of the largest city in New Jersey said that he came with a group of African-American elected officials or contacted you to see if you would help on this, and that you did not."

The debate featured Mr. Gore speaking reverently about controversial black leader Malcolm X and Mr. Bradley calling for the government to issue "info stamps" to poor people for computer equipment and software.

"We have food stamps," Mr. Bradley said. "We need info stamps."

Such exchanges delighted Republicans who have been warned in recent days that Texas Gov. George W. Bush had moved so far to the right to win Saturday's Republican primary in South Carolina that he will be vulnerable in the general election.

Mike Collins, spokesman for the Republican National Committee said the two Democrats had lunged leftward in an attempt to pander to the largely black Apollo audience.

Hoping to reverse weeks of declining poll numbers, Mr. Bradley repeatedly accused the vice president of being conservative during his years in Congress and weak on racial issues while in the White House.

The former New Jersey senator quoted former Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos as saying the vice president "led the effort to end affirmative action at the federal level. That does not sound to me like someone who wants affirmative action to be a part of the solution."

Mr. Gore said he understood Mr. Bradley's need to "get the negativity off your chest," but warned that the attacks would be better directed at the Republican candidates, whom he characterized as racially insensitive and conservative in the extreme.

Nonetheless, the vice president felt compelled to counter what he called Mr. Bradley's "false charges" about his opposition to an initiative on race.

"You have misrepresented that vote entirely, Senator Bradley," Mr. Gore said. "That was not about affirmative action. That was about quotas."

He added: "You voted the same way on final passage."

The debate was seen as one of Mr. Bradley's last chances to halt the hemorrhaging of support for his candidacy.

Once considered a potent challenger to the vice president, Mr. Bradley plummeted in the polls after being beaten in both Iowa and New Hampshire.

The New Hampshire loss was especially alarming to the Bradley campaign, because large numbers of independent voters chose to support Republican John McCain. Now that the Arizona senator has been soundly defeated by Mr. Bush in the South Carolina primary, Mr. Bradley hopes to regain the independent support in upcoming primaries.

Last night's Democratic debate, televised live on CNN, was Mr. Bradley's first chance in weeks to command the media spotlight. He hoped to use that chance to contrast himself with Mr. Gore more sharply than ever before.

Mr. Bradley's strategy was to win the debate and then ride the resulting momentum into Washington state, which holds its Democratic primary in one week.

Although no delegates are up for grabs in that state's "beauty contest," the winner can get a psychological boost going into Super Tuesday a week later, when huge numbers of delegates are at stake.

To that end, Mr. Bradley was set to go to Washington tomorrow and campaign there almost nonstop until that state's primary. In an effort to blunt that strategy, Mr. Gore has already stepped up campaign activities in Washington.

During the hours before last night's debate, Mr. Gore strolled down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Harlem, where the historic Apollo Theatre is located. He was joined by Rep. Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat.

Mr. Bradley visited a Latino school in Brooklyn, fighting an uphill battle to win support from minorities, who are expected to make up one-third of the voters in New York's primary March 7.

Mr. Sharpton told The Washington Times he will endorse one of the Democrats in the next few days.

Outside the theater, small knots of supporters for the candidates morphed into a crowd of several hundred as the day wore on. Although the Gore crowd was larger and louder, not everyone carrying a Gore sign backed him.

For example, Alexander Garner, a 62-year-old black retiree, showed up looking for a ticket to the debate. When none could be had, a group of Gore supporters mostly young, white, professional women handed him a campaign sign and invited him behind the barricade set up for supporters.

"I just took the sign since I was going to be standing around here and I didn't want to look like a vagrant," Mr. Garner told The Washington Times. "To tell you the gospel truth, I don't even see why Gore's running. For him to know what Clinton did in the White House and stand by him like that it's kind of lousy to me.

"Here he is, walking along side by side with a guy who done what he done with a young girl in the Oval Office, and all he can do is say: 'Well, everybody is entitled to a mistake.' " Mr. Garner continued. "No, no, that's not a mistake, man. I wish somebody would talk to Clinton and smack him, really hard."

He added: "I'm more inclined to vote Republican."

But another black from Brooklyn, Bilal Muhammad, defended Mr. Gore.

"They weren't his scandals. They're his buddy's scandals President Clinton's scandals," said Mr. Muhammad, who was at the Apollo yesterday for business, not politics.

"And, frankly, I think when the dust settles, and the positives and negatives of Clinton's record are weighed, you're going to see the scales tip hard to the positive," Mr. Muhammad added. "I mean, look at our economy."

He added: "For people of color, Clinton has been probably one of the most influential presidents to stand up for our issues and to connect himself with our community."

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