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Bill Bradley, candidate with a bounce

Bill Bradley retired from the Senate in 1996. Since then he has taught, done television commentary and given, by his count, 140 speeches. Carrying his own luggage for the first time in 18 years, the man who survived a career as a professional basketball player without serious shoulder complaints developed problems with his rotator cuff from lugging around a 50-pound suitcase. It was, apparently, the weight of the books that was dragging him down. ("You always take 10 times more than you can read.") Certainly it was not the wardrobe. "You'd be surprised how superfluous it is to change your shirt," he confided.

Now Bradley is back in harness, running for the Democratic presidential nomination, encumbered with scheduler, media handler, chauffeur. This campaign is still a low-rent operation, and his public appearances run to labor union Christmas parties and grade-school awards days. There is about $20-million standing between Bradley and serious credibility as a candidate. Given his commitment to campaign finance reform, he is hoping to get it from 20,000 donors giving $1,000 each.

Bradley's decision to run for the presidency seems like a reasonable political calculation even though Vice President Al Gore is far and away the front-runner. About a year from now, according to Democratic contrarians, many primary voters may wake up to the near-inevitability of Gore's nomination and suffer a case of anticipatory buyer's remorse, the malady's chief symptom being a desperate flailing around for somebody who seems better. It is the Bruce Babbitt/Paul Tsongas role, and it has always been short-term employment. (Buyer's remorse is usually followed by grudging submission.) But politics these days has a tendency to veer off the trail at a moment's notice. Gore could run into new problems over his next year in office. Or he could be kidnapped by aliens.

This is where Bradley would come in. He is popular with the media, which counts for something. He has a serious campaign agenda, centering on underprivileged children and racial unity. He is a deep thinker, the author of four books. But it is impossible to exaggerate how much his legitimacy as a national politician rests on the fact that he used to make his living stuffing a large round ball through a netted hoop.

"Do you know who Bradley is?" asks a teacher at Berringer High School in Newark, N.J., where the ex-senator has come to help publicize a student volunteerism program called Do Something.

"He was a basketball player for the Knicks," says Charles Estrada, a small boy in a wrestling team sweat shirt.

"Anything else?"

"No," says Charles, searching his memory. "And _ and he's running for president."

The school's principal, who has dropped by to give the program a sendoff speech, launches into a description of how when he was a Rutgers college student, he watched Bradley play for Princeton: "This man used to throw 40-footers into the basket, and Rutgers could never win."

Bradley does not try to downplay the association _ his most recent book is not the dutiful candidate's tome on how to make government better, but a bestseller about how sports teaches character. However, he does not have to push it, either. His status as a former New York Knick comes up absolutely all the time, and even when it does not, it is there.

At Berringer, the students around the room each offer an adjective to describe themselves. "I'm Crystal, and I'm charismatic," says the student body president. "I'm Luis, and I'm shy," says the Do Something leader. It seems almost inevitable that Bradley, when his turn comes, will say, "I'm Bill, and I'm tall." But instead he offers, "I'm Bill Bradley, and I'm thankful to be here," and urges the students to come back with anecdotes about their efforts. "I'll tell the stories of Do Something and Berringer High School all over the country," he promises before the group breaks up and the kids stand in line for his autograph.

Bradley, whose candidacy is in the "exploratory" stage, is likely to share the field of would-be Gore-busters with a few other Democrats, including Senators Paul Wellstone of Minnesota and John Kerry of Massachusetts. Wellstone is a favorite of the left, and Kerry is a combat veteran with access to his wife's personal fortune. But as everybody knows, Bradley has the best shot.

Gail Collins is a member of the New York Times editorial staff.

New York Times News Service

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