Top Democrat quits in disgust

RUPERT CORNWELL

Washington

Proclaiming his disgust at a "broken" political system, one of the US Senate's most respected members announced yesterday he will step down when his current term expires next year, and simultaneously ended speculation that he might challenge Bill Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1996.

The retirement of Bill Bradley, a 52-year-old New Jersey Democrat, public policy expert, Rhodes scholar and former professional basketball star, accelerates the premature collapse of an entire generation of thoughtful, centrist Democrats, once regarded as the backbone of the party.

His decision brings to six the number of incumbent Democrats who will step down next year. At least two others are expected to follow suit.

Senator Bradley's retirement will deprive the Senate of a very experienced and thoughtful voice, long considered to be of White House calibre. It also makes it even less likely that the Democrats can next year recapture control of the Senate, where the Republicans now have a 54- 46 majority.

Caught between the strident oratory of dominant conservative Republicans and the increasing populism of his own Democrats, Mr Bradley's voice has been largely drowned out on Capitol Hill. Even before he withdrew yesterday, his seat was considered vulnerable by Republicans and Democrats alike.

Announcing his decision to friends and supporters in Newark, Mr Bradley said he would not leave public life entirely, but that 18 years in the Senate had been enough.

"Politics on a basic level is broken," he said. "In growing numbers people have lost faith in the political process, and don't see how it can help their threatened economic circumstances."

Since his election in 1978, Mr Bradley has been among his party's brightest stars, combining the celebrity of a former New York Knicks hero with an ability to argue creatively on issues as varied as tax policy, the Soviet Union, and race, crime and inner cities. In an increasingly polarised two-party system, he has been an unswerving moderate, and for more than a decade talk has surfaced of a Bradley presidential run - most recently this year when he became openly critical of Mr Clinton's performance.

However, his recent political base has been a good deal less secure than his reputation, and it was only the timing of yesterday's announcement that caused surprise. He came within an ace of defeat in 1990 at the hands of the then unknown Christine Todd Whitman. She is now a tax-cutting and much admired governor of New Jersey, widely tipped for the vice-presidential slot on the 1996 Republican ticket.

As her star has waxed, so has Mr Bradley's waned. The shock of near-defeat at home forced him to drop any plans of a 1992 White House run. Since then, both his influence within the Senate and his fundraising abilities in New Jersey have ebbed. In 1990, he outspent Mrs Whitman $12m to $1m. This time the leading Republican contender has raised twice as much money as the sitting Senator, even before he is nominated.

With at least three of the vacated seats in the increasingly Republican South, the Democrats will do well to maintain their present strength. Contrary to predictions in the immediate aftermath of the 1994 Republican landslide, the party is now given a better - albeit a long-shot - chance of regaining the House of Representatives than the Senate.

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