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Bill Bradley's Secret Weapon

She's a German-born literature professor who used to be a stewardess. And she just published a book about the Holocaust. Ernestine Bradley is no ordinary presidential candidate's wife.

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The invitation to the Idaho democratic party fund-raiser said Ernestine Bradley was to deliver the keynote address. It didn't say anything about Tipper Gore. So when Bradley-campaign workers got word that the vice-president's wife was planning to hijack the event, they flipped. "We just learned Tipper's going to be there!" moaned spokeswoman Emma Byrne, barely two weeks before the big night. At the Bradley-campaign headquarters in West Orange, New Jersey, the worry was that Bradley's wife, a college professor who has spent more time in the classroom than on the campaign trail, would be upstaged by Tipper, who spent most of the past decade practicing her people skills. What was supposed to be an easy warm-up for Ernestine, well away from the national media glare, now threatened to become a full-blown bake-off, sure to attract reporters and television cameras from as far away as . . . well, as far away as New York.

Idaho, which in recent years has become one of the most Republican states in the union, is customarily written off by Democrats. But this year, the competition between Al Gore and Bill Bradley has heated up so quickly that every state counts. In Concord, in Des Moines, in Los Angeles, even in Boise, the two candidates are throwing everything they've got at each other, including their wives. Tipper Gore, like Al, is the known quantity; Ernestine Bradley, the wild card. Eight years older than her husband, she grew up in Germany, where her father was a Luftwaffe pilot. She became a stewardess, emigrated to this country, earned a Ph.D. in comparative literature, and recently wrote a book about the Holocaust. This is a woman who still speaks English with a distinct foreign accent, and who knows how that's going to go over in Idaho?

The day of the dinner starts out clear, cold, and bright. By 6 p.m., as dinner guests are filing into the student union on the campus of Boise State University, it has already turned dark. In the foyer outside the Jordan Ballroom, members of the Idaho Democratic Women's Caucus are serving Swedish meatballs and bright-orange cheese cubes. Midwestern neighborliness only partially covers the fiercely competitive mood. "Democrats in Idaho are, as you may know, struggling," Anne Marie Martin tells me. "We're scarcer than hen's teeth," adds Lucy Artis, who greets complete strangers like they were prodigal family members. For reasons that have nothing to do with Ernestine Bradley, or even Bill Bradley, these women are predisposed toward the challenger from New Jersey. Al Gore's association with the current administration does not work in his favor here. "People in Idaho loathe Bill Clinton," Martin explains. "Gore still has that Clinton stench hanging around him."

Still, it's not every day you get a chance to meet the vice-president's wife, and whatever their misgivings about Al Gore, the women are delighted at the prospect of seeing Tipper. Her appearance is the work of Bethine Church, a grandmotherly figure with the soul of a cigar-chomping deal-maker, referred to locally as the "godmother of Idaho politics." She has known the Gore family since the days when her late husband, Frank Church, served with Al's father in the Senate, and she still refers to Tipper and Al as "the kids."

"I thought of Bill as such a gentle and kind and sensitive person, yet on the court, you know, he used his elbows. It was rough! That contrast I found most intriguing."

"We invited Mrs. Bradley," says Dottie Stimpson, who is wearing a sweater set and has her hair in perfectly rolled curls. "Then Bethine said we ought to have Mrs. Gore here, too. You know, have a level playing field. We thought it would be a wonderful opportunity for them to get to know each other, and for us to get to know them." By 6:30, the ballroom is packed. For the first time in years, the Idaho Democrats have drawn a sell-out crowd, thanks to the promised spectacle of the two would-be First Ladies facing off in public.

Ernestine is the first to arrive. She's wearing a simple dress between gray and brown in color, with smoky-brown stockings, brown pumps with stacked heels, and a velvet blazer. She is slight, with birdlike features and luminous blue eyes. Her gray-streaked brown hair is cut in a short pixie, giving her a waifish, spritelike appearance . . . and she does not look 64 years old. You can see the surprised reaction among the Idaho Democrats: This is no stuffy academic; this is a Teutonic Audrey Hepburn.

Ernestine has never really played the Washington game before -- when her husband was in the Senate, she was busy writing books, carrying a full teaching load at Montclair State University, and, for a period of several years beginning in 1992, battling breast cancer. But she works the room like a natural pol. "I'm Ernestine Bradley," she says over and over. She radiates warmth and delighted curiosity. Oh! She's so pleased to meet a mother and a daughter here together! This man's half-remembered German is sehr gut!

By her side is a courtly white-haired gentleman. This is Cecil Andrus, former four-term governor of Idaho and the state's leading Democrat. "What do you think about Tipper Gore showing up?" a reporter yells.

"I think it's great for the Democratic Party in Idaho," Ernestine replies brightly. "I hope the presence of myself and Mrs. Gore gets things bubbling."

A reporter presses Andrus for his view. "We're supporting Bill Bradley," he replies firmly. "We don't want anything to do with that other guy." But behind Andrus, a Gore supporter waves a giant blue placard trumpeting TIPPER in the direction of the TV cameras. Throughout the evening, the Gore loyalists prove the more determined, better-choreographed team.

Once Ernestine has made her way to her table just to the left of the stage, Tipper arrives at the main entrance with her entourage, and the Gore supporters leap to their feet, triggering a lengthy standing ovation. Ernestine gamely stands and applauds, too, then turns away and chats with her neighbor, studiously ignoring what all the others are twisting and craning their necks to see.

Even from a distance, Tipper is instantly recognizable, thanks to her familiar blonde bob. She works her way diligently through the room, escorted by Bethine Church, who turns out to be a creaky grande dame in a red blazer with a wild grin on her face. Bethine has commandeered a table directly in front of the podium.


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