The 55-year-old former Rhodes Scholar and star of the National Basketball Association announced the creation of a presidential exploratory committee to begin raising money for a campaign.
"What clinched it for me was this kind of thing," Bradley said as he walked into an employee recognition luncheon at a Newark, N.J., community center. "I want to provide the kind of leadership that doesn't stand in the spotlight, but that calls attention to the actions of millions of Americans who shine every day."
Bradley also posted a "personal message" on his new Internet site Friday that says, "I am considering seeking the Democratic nomination for President in the year 2000. I would run to improve the opportunity for more Americans to live healthier, more economically secure, more personally fulfilling lives."
A campaign official said Bradley will make a formal announcement of his intentions in February if all goes as expected.
In the first direct challenge of Vice President Al Gore's bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, Bradley said he was filing a "statement of organization" with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) on Friday.
Declaring a "commitment to campaign finance disclosure," Bradley cautiously dipped into the currently troubled political waters, noting that federal election law does not require the registration of an exploratory committee. In his letter to the FEC, he wrote that when he made a final decision about a presidential candidacy, he would file a formal statement of candidacy.
The FEC in Washington said it had not formally received Bradley's filing, but that his would be the first such filing by a major presidential candidate for 2000.
"I would run to help unleash the enormous potential of the American people," Bradley said. "I want to help take that energy and channel it, not only toward further economic vitality, but also toward finishing our agenda of obligations that we have to one another."
Sen. Paul Wellstone, a liberal senator from Minnesota, already has taken a similar step. Sens. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, John Kerry of Massachusetts and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri also are considering presidential campaigns.
Despite the support of President Clinton and much of the party's machinery, Gore is considered vulnerable by many in his own party. The vice president is building his campaign team, though he won't officially launch his campaign until early next year.
Gore had no immediate comment about Bradley's announcement, which has been expected. Bradley spoke to Gore briefly by telephone Friday to inform the vice president of his plans. Vice presidential aides described the converstion as cordial and courteous.
Meanwhile, Republican Sen. John Aschroft is preparing to run for president and Senate simultaneously in 2000, and will announce his intentions Jan. 5 in his hometown Springfield, Mo., his aides said Friday.
Other Republicans said to be considering a run for president include Texas Governor George Bush Jr, son of the former President and Elizabeth Dole, head of the American Red Cross and wife of the last Republican contender, Bob Dole.
Bradley was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1978 as a Democrat representing New Jersey. Reelected in 1984 and 1990, he decided not to seek a fourth term and left the Senate at the end of 1996. Before election to the Senate, Bradley, who was born in Crystal City, Mo. in July 1943, was a professional basketball player with the New York Knicks from 1967 to 1977.
When he left the U.S. Senate in 1996, Bradley said he was tired of the partisan bickering in Congress. Since then, he has been spending more time with family, working as an advisor on international affairs and as a visiting professor at Stanford University. He wrote a book, Values of the Game, that came out in October, an account of how his experiences in basketball helped shape his values in life.
After a decade of flirting with the idea of a White House run, Bradley's statement Friday appeared to show that he was serious about exploring the possibility this time. During his 18 years in Congress, he earned a reputation as one of the most thoughtful people on Capitol Hill.
As recently as Oct. 1, while on a visit to Des Moines, Iowa -- one of the first stopping points for any potential presidential candidate -- Bradley likened running for the White House to leaping off a tall building. "Do my wife and family and I want to jump off a 50-story building, with no idea that there's a net at the bottom?" he asked.
Bradley seriously considered running for the presidency in 1988 and again in 1992, but he wrote in his 1996 autobiography, Time Present, Time Past, that he backed away partly out of fear of failure and because of a concern for his privacy and that of his family.
In a reference to the sex-and-perjury scandal surrounding President Clinton and the partisan divisions that have come with it, the former Senator said in Iowa that "healing" was needed in the nation.
"To treat people fairly, to return some civility to the political process. I think those are important parts of any kind of healing," he said. Bradley added that the next president must "get on with the business of America."