Bill Bradley has made race relations the centerpiece of his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Yet Vice President Al Gore holds a commanding lead among black voters six weeks before the first voting of campaign 2000.
Mr. Gore’s campaign believes the support of black voters may make a decisive difference March 14 in the series of Southern primaries known as Super Tuesday.
The vice president led Mr. Bradley 57 percent to 24 percent among black Democrats in an Associated Press poll released Dec. 1.
Mr. Bradley acknowledges he has work to do. He urged black voters to learn more about his campaign Thursday as he addressed the Congress of National Black Churches in Los Angeles.
“It was the black church that saw the tenets of our Scriptures as the model for our civil rights movement,” the former New Jersey senator said. “I want you to know that this is the faith that I have, too.”
In national surveys, race does not rank among voters’ top concerns. In a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll released Thursday, voters rated their top priorities among 22 issues. Race relations tied for last place, with campaign-finance reform, child care and immigration.
But Mr. Gore and Mr. Bradley know black voters are a key constituency in the Democratic primaries and account for 40 percent of the Democratic electorate in Southern primaries.
Mr. Bradley says healing racial divisions would be a major goal in his administration. On the campaign trail he often talks of his Missouri childhood, when some restaurants refused to serve his Little League team because the left fielder and the catcher were black.
Mr. Bradley also tells of how he sat in the U.S. Senate chamber as an intern on June 19, 1964, the night lawmakers passed the Civil Rights Act.
He tells audiences that he got a better understanding of racism during his 10 years with the NBA’s New York Knicks. He turned down commercial endorsements believing the offers were unfair to his black teammates.
Racial unity is “the defining moral issue of our time,” he told students last April at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City.
“When Ronald Reagan was president, everyone knew that if you wanted to please the boss, you cut taxes, increased military spending and fought communism,” Mr. Bradley said.
“If I’m president, I want one thing to be known: If you want to please the boss, one of the things you’d better show is how in your department or agency you’ve furthered tolerance and racial understanding.”
In August, Mr. Bradley told a forum in Harlem that racial unity “is not for me a political position. It’s who I am. It’s what I believe. It’s what I care most about.”
In Los Angeles on Thursday, Mr. Bradley pledged to fight “subtle racism” that he said causes inequities in education, health care and home loans.
He said his plan to bring health care coverage to 95 percent of Americans would help the country’s poor. He urged strict enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, greater involvement of minorities in government and tighter gun control.
“Some people are saying, We can’t do all the things you want to do.’ I don’t think we should settle” for anything less, he said.
John Walker of the Alfred Street Baptist Church in Northern Virginia attended the event in Los Angeles and said he liked what he heard from Mr. Bradley but had yet to make up his mind.
“It’s what I wanted to hear, certainly what I would like,” he said of Mr. Bradley’s push for racial unity and universal health care. “It was good to hear about his childhood.”
Mr. Gore benefits from President Clinton’s high approval rating among black voters. But the vice president is taking nothing for granted. In recent weeks Mr. Gore has told black voters that Mr. Bradley’s plan to replace Medicaid with vouchers would hurt minorities.
Rep. John Lewis, Georgia Democrat, a civil rights veteran and Gore supporter, summarized Mr. Bradley’s problem in attracting black voters.
“Al Gore has a history of being there,” he said.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.