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The Unnatural

On paper, Bill Bradley is a peerless presidential candidate. But in person, the former senator fumbles, stumbles, and drones. His only hope is to turn awkwardness into a political asset.

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Cruising down the New Jersey Turnpike in a Lincoln Town Car on a bright fall morning, Bill Bradley is master of his realm. An hour south of here is Princeton, where the young Bradley became a basketball All-American and won a Rhodes scholarship. Visible in the east is the skyline of Manhattan, where Bradley led the New York Knicks to two world championships and earned a place in basketball's Hall of Fame. And awaiting Bradley at events in three towns today are the adoring citizens of New Jersey, who sent Bradley to the U.S. Senate for eighteen years.

Earlier this month, Bradley formed an "exploratory committee" (read: fund-raising vehicle), making him the second Democrat to dip his toe in the presidential pool, joining Minnesota's Senator Paul Wellstone, a liberal dark horse. Blue-blood senator John Kerry of Massachusetts is believed close to entering the fray as well. The heavy favorite, naturally, is Al Gore, who appears so formidable at the moment that Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska defied expectation and opted not to run. House minority leader Dick Gephardt is said to be leaning against a run now, as well.

All of which could leave Bradley as the top alternative to Gore. And if this maze of asphalt in northern New Jersey were representative of America, Bradley could start planning his inaugural. When the six-foot-five superstar arrives at a breakfast in West Orange, he gets spontaneous applause, and a rousing standing ovation after he speaks. State Senate minority leader Richard Codey, who in the past called him "Abe Lincoln with a jump shot," introduces him glowingly. The Essex County Democratic chairman is showing off a bill bradley for president 2000 button. The reception is much the same for Bradley later in the day at a rally in Jersey City and a festival in Cliffside Park, where a local sheriff candidate calls Bradley "the next president of the United States" and someone else greets him as "Mr. President."

Bradley has been considered presidential material for years. Pundits have been tantalized by his on-paper assets -- a flawless résumé, an unimpeachable character, a brand name. But he's always waffled and then demurred, citing the usual obvious reasons (family, privacy, etc.). He just didn't want it bad enough; that much was clear. The question now is whether he's suddenly found some new inspiration or if it's just that, at the age of 55, he doesn't know what else to do for the rest of his life.

Shortly before he retired from the Senate in 1997, Bradley famously declared that "politics is broken." That blends neatly into his latest tune that politics is "not beyond being able to fix. It starts with a politician who is true to his convictions, and you build a movement from there." This is part of his nascent stump speech, and practically every sound bite is loaded with veiled and not-so-veiled jabs at Clinton. Bradley's chief strategy is to package himself as the un-Clinton: straight as an arrow, earnestly bookish, squeaky-clean.

"The presidency is only a potential," he said in a speech at Notre Dame University. "It can be grand," he added, citing Lincoln and others. "Or it can be less grand, as it has been from time to time," he said with a smirk, as the audience obligingly chuckled at the not-so-funny dig at Clinton.

Taking the high ground comes naturally to Bradley. In the Senate, he devoted himself to thankless issues such as strategic petroleum reserves and tax reform. And when it comes to personal conduct, the man is clearly no Clinton: Bradley would never have an "inappropriate relationship" with his interns; he probably wouldn't be able to pick them out of a lineup.


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