Vice President Al Gore’s strategists fear that former Sen. Bill Bradley’s refusal to swear off TV and radio ads means the eventual Democratic nominee will run out of money long before Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
“The fear is that the Democratic nominee would not have the money in the late spring and early summer to deal with a George W. onslaught,” said Gore political consultant Peter Fenn. “Having each [Democratic] candidate withhold some of that money is not a bad idea.”
He added of the Democrats: “They’d both be better off in the end whoever wins.”
During a televised debate Sunday, Mr. Gore offered to stop airing TV and radio spots if Mr. Bradley did the same.
Mr. Bradley refused, saying: “It sounds to me like you’re having trouble raising money.”
Although Mr. Bradley had more cash on hand than Mr. Gore at the end of the third quarter, each man’s war chest is dwarfed by that of Mr. Bush, the Republican presidential-nomination front-runner.
With more than $60 million amassed so far, the Texas governor can raise and spend as much as he likes because he has not joined the Democratic candidates in accepting federal matching funds and the accompanying restrictions.
With Mr. Gore and Mr. Bradley locked in a tightening race that looks increasingly as though it will last for months, the eventual Democratic nominee could stagger to victory just in time to be dramatically outspent on TV ads by Mr. Bush.
At a campaign stop yesterday in New Hampshire, Mr. Bush dismissed Mr. Gore’s proposal, adding that he would use his sizable war chest as necessary.
“I agree with Senator Bradley that it’s a stunt,” Mr. Bush said. “I intend to debate if I’m the nominee, but I’m not interested in speculating about next fall. I want to talk about the primary right now. I’ve got a race on my hands.”
Despite Mr. Gore’s failure to strike a deal with Mr. Bradley banning ads in the primary, Gore spokesman Chris Lehane yesterday said the vice president’s superior policies will prevail over Mr. Bush’s superior war chest in the general election.
“The ideas and the issues are going to be so overwhelmingly on our side in this election that they’ll trump any money advantage that the Republicans have,” Mr. Lehane said. “They always have more money than us. But Democrats tend to do well with the issues health care, education, guns, the economy.”
Mr. Bradley is reluctant to swear off advertising because he has less name recognition than the vice president. The former New Jersey senator is still considered a long shot for the Democratic nomination and is therefore focusing almost exclusively on Mr. Gore, not the eventual Republican nominee.
To that end, Mr. Bradley appears to have scored points in Sunday’s debate, according to reviews ranging from the liberal on-line magazine Slate to conservative radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh.
The reviewers said Mr. Bradley decimated the vice president by dismissing his proposed ad ban as a “ridiculous” ploy that typifies Mr. Gore’s approach to politics.
Jacob Weisberg, chief political correspondent for Slate, wrote that the exchange “represents a pivotal moment in the Democratic campaign.”
By refusing to shake the vice president’s outstretched hand to signify acceptance of the ad ban, “Bradley grabbed this weapon out of Gore’s hand and pistol-whipped him with it.”
“Bradley finally came into his own,” Mr. Weisberg wrote. “He performed a sort of political jujitsu I have never really seen from him before, waiting for Gore to charge at him, and then turning the assault back on his attacker. Bradley used this technique to devastating effect.”
According to Mr. Weisberg, the hourlong debate crystallized the stylistic differences between the two Democrats.
“Gore’s sneering gestures all seemed rehearsed and theatrical. Bradley, on the other hand, came across as straightforward and real, his authenticity underscored by Gore’s plasticity,” Mr. Weisberg wrote. “In sum, Gore may want to reconsider his request for twice-weekly debates. A few more like [Sunday’s] and he’ll be kaput.”
Mr. Limbaugh was equally critical of the vice president’s performance, especially the failed bid for an ad ban.
“He goes in with an obviously programmed, scripted idea and it just got thrown back at him like a carton of eggs, all over his face, dripping down his blue suit and red tie,” Mr. Limbaugh said. “He doesn’t realize he’s just been creamed.”
He likened the exchange to Mr. Gore “hitting a tree at 200 miles per hour.”
The influential conservative commentator said the clashes between Mr. Gore and Mr. Bradley on such topics as campaign-finance reform and health care produced sound bites that amount to early Christmas presents for Republicans, who can use the material against the Democrats throughout the campaign.
Mr. Fenn said Mr. Bradley was the one who gave ammunition to Republicans.
“Is he setting up a Democratic loss in November with this stuff?” Mr. Fenn said. “I mean, he puts this stuff out there and if I’m George Bush, I’m thinking to myself: Oh, please give it to me. I want that stuff to shoot at.’ ”
He added that the Bradley health care plan “is not only offensive to the Democratic constituency, but obviously the cost factors of the thing would drive Republicans up the wall.”
Both Mr. Fenn and Mr. Lehane insisted their candidate won the debate. Ron Klain, the vice president’s former chief of staff, said Mr. Gore even triumphed in the clash over the proposed ad ban.
“I thought he won that exchange and prevailed in the debate overall,” said Mr. Klain, an unofficial Gore adviser. “He did superbly very, very, very well.”
Bradley spokesman Eric Hauser disagreed.
“Any time that authenticity is matched with gimmickry, authenticity wins every time,” he said. “And I’m not sure the vice president did himself any favors over the last two-and-a-half months by re-establishing his profile as a negative politician.”
Joseph Daniel McCool contributed to this article.