Can Dollar Bill Go Beyond Fancy Dribbling?

He can run, shoot, and handle the ball, all right. But can he win the big game? Thus far in his bid for the Democratic nomination, Bill Bradley has executed his underdog's strategy well. The former New York Knicks star is raising big bucks--$12 million vs. Vice-President Al Gore's $18 million. He's campaigning on broad themes, which some voters seem to regard as a refreshing counterpoint to Gore's numbing 10-point plans. And by buttonholing Democrats one-on-one in key primary states, Bradley is beginning to impress political power brokers with his breakaway potential.

Trouble is, it's still just potential. For all of his exertions, Bradley still garners only 26% support in Iowa in the latest Des Moines Register poll and 32% in the July 8-12 New Hampshire Poll. Not bad, but to hit the big time, the former New Jersey senator has to add a new dimension to his offense. Here's what political pros look for:

-- Get Gore's Attention. Right now, the Vice-President ignores Bradley and acts as if he were in a general election contest with GOP front-runner George W. Bush. The Veep is targeting the GOP's "risky tax schemes" and trying to paint Bush as beholden to the gun lobby and religious zealots.

But if Bradley's Democratic support edges up to the danger zone--say, 40%--Gore will be forced to wage a two-front war. In essence, Bradley needs those potshots from Gore to show activists he's on the same stage as the Veep.

-- Draw the Contrast. Bradley dismisses Gore as a small-bore pol and professes a loftier vision. Yet the differences seem slight. For instance, Bradley has unveiled a plan to register handguns, outlaw cheap pistols, and ban gun shops from residential neighborhoods. Within days, Gore issued his own call for stiffer licensing requirements. "Bradley doesn't distinguish himself clearly from Gore," says Drake University political scientist Hugh Winebrenner. "It's his biggest problem."

Bradley is working on that. On July 22, he'll unveil a plan to curb special-interest money in politics. Bradley refuses political action committee cash, wants to ban unrestricted "soft money" gifts, and may back public subsidies in exchange for spending caps. "Gore won't be able to match this," says an aide. Bradley plans to follow up this fall with calls for a new child-care system and universal health care--initiatives unburdened by Gore's need to actually cost out his programs.

-- Burrow Into the Base. Bradley is big with independents. But most don't vote in primaries. That means he must cut into Gore's institutional support with activists such as teachers, minorities, and union members.

Bradley is reaching out to blacks by vowing to make racial reconciliation a top priority. And he's wooing labor, especially industrial unionists who dislike the Administration's free-trade policy. "We think labor is in play," says Bradley spokesman Eric Hauser.

-- Build Infrastructure. Bradley's strategy rests on wounding Gore early in Iowa or New Hampshire, then finishing him off Mar. 7 in New York and California. But pros can't discern much of a Bradley campaign outside the first two states. Unless he builds one, the compression of the nominating calendar into the first eight weeks of the year could make him another Gary Hart. In 1984, Hart wounded Walter F. Mondale in New Hampshire but lacked the organization elsewhere to capitalize.

Can Bradley do all these things while running an unconventional campaign that, at times, seems more like a Zen meditation than a television-age crusade? Insiders say no--but then, Bradley has proven the cognoscenti wrong so far.