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Watching Bradley tangle with himself

William the Good is so very patient with us.

He has been disappointed when reporters and voters and even his own advisers and big-shot supporters failed to understand why he has dithered so much about Closing the Deal, why he hasn't just picked up Al Gore by the scruff of his neck and said: "Back off, you phony, smarmy, sniveling, preppy sneak, you no-controlling-legal-authority Buddhist-nun-shakedown artist."

But the tall guy has been more interested in "building a relationship with the voters of New Hampshire" than in razing Al Gore. He's been preaching his gospel of New Politics, all positive all the time. If he gave in completely to Old Politics, it might be effective. But it would be wrong. Worse, it would be inconsistent.

Sonia Sheridan, a retired fine arts professor who came to see Bradley at a Newport senior citizens center Friday morning, did not understand New Politics. "How can you deal with the sleaze factor without yourself going through the same type of tactics?" she asked Bradley.

This philosophical conundrum tormented the Hamlet of New Hampshire all day, as he tried to work up his nerve to deliver the Big Attack on Al Gore that his spinners had promised.

Bradley's preference is to be oblique. Or to let surrogates hint at Al Gore's hyperactive campaign finance phone calls. Or to give a dollop of directness, but preferably in the void, late on a Friday night, after the eager press pack has given up hopes of an attack and wandered off to dinner.

Call it a passive-aggressive campaign, new resisting old. In Old Politics, you tangle with your opponent. In New Politics, you tangle with yourself. OP is visceral. NP is cerebral. In OP, you try to clobber your rival, without subtlety or ambivalence. In NP, winning is beside the point: beliefs and convictions are the point.

Bill Bradley has less time to take on Al Gore because he's so busy examining his own feelings about how far he should go in taking on Al Gore. He finds his analysis of himself fascinating. Sure, the primary that will decide his presidential fate is days away. But he clings to tantric campaigning. He holds back, seeking a level of self-realization deeper than the merely electoral.

There are so many moral and political dilemmas still to wrestle with: If he smacks his Democratic foe, is it fratricide? What is the most just way to apportion blame for the Chinese money scandal and Lincoln bedroom scam between the president and vice president? If one goes negative, how negative can one go and remain true to oneself? And when does a double negative become a positive? If one is obviously better and smarter, why should one have to prove it?

All day Friday, Bradley would only go so far as to call Gore "tricky." He said he was waiting for him to repent about his "misstatements." (Dream on, Dollar Bill.)

But finally, at a Nashua fundraiser at 9:30 p.m., he stuck his little toe in the water on the topic he feels most strongly about in private _ the fundraising scandal of '96. Passive-Aggressive said Gore must "face up" to the "disgraceful" behavior, but it ended up sounding more like a hint from Heloise. "If we don't clean our house," he said, "the Republicans are going to clean it for us in the fall."

Bradley is also trying to hector Gore on abortion, saying he must explain to the public his "journey" from opposing Medicaid funding for abortion to supporting it. Here's a hint, Heloise: It's called being the Democratic front-runner.

Gore is a master panderer who turned up at an MTV rally in jeans so weirdly tight that even Ted Koppel felt compelled to comment. But Bradley thinks trying to please is beneath a politician. His campaign has been choking on dignity.

When he played basketball, he hated being called a jock. He said he dreaded "the unnaturalness of being a sex object" for groupies. As a politician he doesn't want to stoop to politics. He says he hates the "rat-a-tat-tat." He doesn't care for the rah-rah either. It would be so much more gratifying if voters could be illuminated without expecting to be excited.

"You just want him to hit Gore or something," said Mrs. Sheridan.

She doesn't understand. Bradley has been working to restore trust in the process. Under duress, he's trying to attack. But you get the feeling that for him, losing, with its negation of craven self-interest, might be the best way to prove he was worthy of winning.

He's too good for us, really.

Maureen Dowd is a New York Times columnist.

New York Times News Service