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Primary memories

Chronicling the grim demise of Bill Bradley’s 2000 campaign

Bill Bradley (left) and Vice President Al Gore (right) shook hands after their debate at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, New Hampshire. Luke Frazza/REUTERS

Fossils of failed presidential campaigns litter the New Hampshire landscape. Titans have stumbled there, as chroniclers of one-term presidents Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson can attest.

Scores of other candidacies have expired or suffered irreparable wounds. Front-runners (Ed Muskie and Bob Dole), one-percenters (Steve Forbes and Pete DuPont), insurgents (Jesse Jackson), radicals (Lyndon LaRouche), self-defeatists (Gary Hart), talking heads (Pat Buchanan): They all tread New Hampshire’s hills and valleys in unsuccessful bids for the presidency.

In 20 years of covering New Hampshire primaries, I crossed paths with candidates who almost immediately revealed their fallibilities. Call it intuition, but when Ernest “Fritz’’ Hollings, a silver-haired South Carolina senator with a stentorian voice and Dixie accent, strolled into the newsroom at the Monadnock Ledger in Peterborough and requested directions to the restroom by inquiring with all the authority of a world statesman, “Where’s your little boys’ room?,’’ I sensed his quest for the 1984 Democratic nomination was doomed.

Double-breasted empty suits rarely play well in New Hampshire. Hollings finished a woeful seventh in the ’84 primary and abandoned the race two days later.


Other times it took longer to sense a campaign’s demise. I spent months for the Globe covering Bill Bradley’s head-to-head race against Vice President Al Gore for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000. Bradley had generated momentum and within two weeks of the New Hampshire primary, he led Gore by as much as 10 points in the polls.

Bradley had star power. Lionized in John McPhee’s bestseller “A Sense of Where You Are,’’ he became college basketball’s player of the year at Princeton in 1965 and won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford. He was an Olympic gold medalist, NBA champion, and Hall of Fame star with the New York Knicks before he began an 18-year stint as a US senator from New Jersey.


Yet Bradley’s luster began to dim after Gore trounced him in the Iowa caucuses, a week before New Hampshire voted. Bradley arrived in the Granite State damaged not only by the Iowa defeat but also by disclosures about his health. He had become increasingly occupied with countering warnings that his irregular heartbeat, a common medical condition known as atrial fibrillation, could compromise his ability to serve as president.

By the time he reached Berlin in New Hampshire’s North Country on the eve of the primary, Bradley’s campaign was wheezing. He found no relief in Berlin, a working-class city coping with the decline of its lifeblood pulp and paper industry. The populace, it turned out, was in no mood for glad-handing a New Jersey flatlander.

I had stood at Bradley’s shoulder as he greeted prospective voters on campaign stops across the country. But not until we reached a Walmart in Berlin did I sense his candidacy was soon to be extinct. The telltale sign appeared in the form of a young female shopper. As the woman approached the store, Bradley extended his hand and said warmly, smiling, “I hope you’ll vote for me.”

The woman barely broke stride. As Bradley’s empty hand dangled, she whisked past him and snapped, “Keep hopin’. ’’

Then the store manager emerged. As Bradley turned to greet him, the manager scowled at him, as if he were a common trespasser.

“There is no soliciting on Walmart property,” the box-store boss said, shooing away an internationally renowned figure in pursuit of the presidency.


So ended Bradley’s experience with retail politics in New Hampshire — and, in effect, his candidacy. The next day, he lost New Hampshire by 6 points and never recovered.

Bob Hohler can be reached at