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On hustings, Bradley plays game his way

It is a year and nearly five months until the next presidential election, but already the experts say Bill Bradley has no chance.

The polls, which have replaced baseball as the national pastime, all show him severely trailing fellow Democrat Al Gore and Republican prodigal son George W. Bush.In addition, never mind that Bradley is a Princeton graduate, a former Rhodes scholar, pro basketball star, three-term U.S. senator or that he made $1.6 million last year for 64 speaking engagements; the man is a soundbite disaster, about as pithy as a rice cake, about as witty as Janet Reno.

Maybe worst of all, Bradley will not accept the media's role as kingmakers in national politics. He not only refuses to put on a lampshade and pink tutu anytime it will mean 30 seconds on network TV, he usually relegates reporters and their questions to official press availability periods.

He did that Tuesday in San Francisco as he sat in a circle of Planned Parenthood employees, asking them questions and nodding and murmuring "Mmm-hmm" to their answers.

"We're not gonna do the press stuff," he said to the TV cameras and journalists as he sat down. "I'll catch you guys afterwards."

As part of a 10-day California campaign swing, Bradley came to Planned Parenthood to learn, not to lecture. Unlike most pro-choice candidates, he didn't talk with the six women and one male physician in a nice neutral hotel meeting room, he came to ground zero: a building in which abortions are sometimes performed.

With his brainy, elegant wife Ernestine sitting next to him, Bradley spent more than an hour listening intently to stories of clinic violence, political complacency and day-to-day frustration.

All 6 feet 5 inches of him sat up straight and attentive. Mostly he kept his huge hands in his lap, his long fingers intertwined and calm. Substitute a tank top and shorts for the charcoal gray suit and dusky fuschia striped tie, and Bradley could almost have been resting on the New York Knicks bench in 1975, watching his teammates in the final minutes of a cakewalk over some other NBA team.

When he did talk, Bradley tended toward the short professorial summation.

"So, basically what you're facing is multiple levels of assault," Bradley said after hearing several anecdotes. "And you're saying that the people who suffer from this are low-income women."

"Exactly" and "absolutely," said the women and the doctor.

When the Planned Parenthood roundtable broke up, Bradley continued to ignore the few reporters who remained. He grabbed a sandwich and a soft drink, which he consumed behind the closed door of the executive director's office.

In a deserted hallway, a young, amiable campaign aide talked about his boss.

"He likes to do events like this where he's going to get something out of it," said the aide, meaning information, not a photo op.

"He likes to connect to one person or a few, then pass on the connection to others down the road or incorporate their stories into a speech."

The aide, who asked not to be named because he was just shooting the breeze, not speaking officially, said he had worked on a slew of political campaigns. Bradley's resembles none of them.

"Nobody 'handles' him," he said.

In a political climate in which the November 2000 election has been reduced to a minor, after-the-fact exercise, it feels good to imagine Bradley surprising the experts and making it a horse race for the Democratic nomination.

It feels good, too, to think about him reintroducing to the American consciousness all those social justice agenda items that he has consistently championed -- the kinds of issues that made millions of baby boomers proud to call themselves liberals: race, equal economic opportunity, gay and lesbian rights, reproductive choice, environmental protection, gun control, affordable health care, a thriving public school system.

But, of course, it's all just a pipe dream, right?

Bradley won't play political ball the way the experts say he must. He's started his campaign "too late" and it's "too low-keyed." Besides, what kind of person thinks he can get elected to the presidency these days by staying off TV and listening to thousands of regular citizens talk about their problems and dreams?