Gore vs Bradley: Now it's personal

THE RACE for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination looked wide open yesterday after the Vice-President Al Gore and former Senator Bill Bradley squared off on television in a fractious and at times fiery encounter that showed their best and worst sides, but did little to settle the contest.

It was their second confrontation of the weekend; they had faced each other in New Hampshire on Friday, in a "town hall meeting" that was broadcast after most Americans would have been in bed.

Yesterday's duel took place at the friendlier hour of 9am in the studios of NBC television in Washington on the network's flagship Sunday morning political talkshow, Meet the Press. Both candidates had mustered their supporters outside the building in advance to provide placard-waving guards of honour as they arrived and left.

They were answering questions from NBC's leading political interviewer, Tim Russert, and the more intimate surroundings of the studio drew each candidate to be more confrontational than before. Despite the best efforts of both men to restrict their disagreements to policy, flashes of sarcasm from Mr Bradley and exaggerated groans from Mr Gore during his opponent's answers betrayed an antipathy that goes beyond the political to the personal.

When Mr Gore challenged Mr Bradley to twice-weekly televised debates and a moratorium on all paid television advertising, Mr Bradley called the proposal a "ridiculous ploy" and said it sounded as though Mr Gore was having difficulty raising funds.

Riled by Mr Gore's denial, Mr Bradley retorted: "For 10 months when I was running for President, you ignored me, you pretended I didn't exist. Suddenly I started to do better and you want a debate every day. It's ridiculous. We're having debates."

Mr Gore leads Mr Bradley by more than 20 percentage points (53 to 28), according to nationwide opinion polls released at the weekend. However, Mr Bradley is either in the lead or neck and neck with Mr Gore in the key primary state of New Hampshire and in several north-eastern states, including New York and his home state of New Jersey. Both Mr Bradley and Senator John McCain, the chief challenger to George W Bush for the Republican nomination, have high hopes of New Hampshire, whose early primary election and reputation for liking a maverick give it the capacity to change the complexion of the race overnight.

While pundits complain that their policy differences are matters of detail, the differences in personality revealed under questioning are vast. Mr Bradley comes across as fluent, concerned and paternal, but defensive when wrongfooted. Mr Gore is energetic, aggressive, and almost animated.

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