It's been almost six months since the last time I talked with Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley, and this seems like a good time for a mea-and-us-a culpa about how wrong professional political watchers can be. Back then it seemed that if any outsider had a chance of toppling a "sure thing," it was going to be Bradley upsetting Vice President Al Gore.
Bradley was starting to edge up in the polls and insiders were buzzing about how this brainy basketball player could give the race a sense of freshness and glamor that was lacking in Gore. Major Hollywood stars were jumping on the Bradley bandwagon, and even President Clinton was expressing reservations about his Veep's campaign.
I myself wrote that Gore seemed to have lost his "mojo." And even if I didn't predict that Bradley would win the Democratic nomination, after spending a few days with him in Iowa, I thought it was at least a possibility. Bradley really did seem to be having fun.
He was effective in small groups and connected one on one with voters. He relished the role of underdog, and though his speeches didn't set hearts thumping, there was something so basically decent about him that it seemed as if he might be able to transcend his low-charisma quotient. Even the Gore campaign started taking him seriously, challenging Bradley to regular debates.
At that time, most of the same professional political prognosticators, including yours truly, were convinced of the inevitability of George W. Bush. Sure, there were some questions about his command of key subjects, but who could argue with all that money and organization?
Polls were showing him way ahead of everyone, not just contenders in his own party. He was young, cute, glib and riding high on the public nostalgia for his dad. He had the endorsement of almost every major Republican in the universe, and it didn't seem like hed even have to break a sweat to get his party's nod.
Yes, we knew John McCain was a charmer, not to mention a war hero, but how could be possibly compete? Well, he showed us, didn't he?
But if McCain could cut through, why couldn't Bradley? It's not enough to say, as some are suggesting, that McCain sucked the wind out of Bradley's sails. Surely there is room for a usurper in each party, if that's what the voters want. I found myself pondering the question of Bradley's lack of success this week, when I had another chance to interview him.
This time we were not by the Mississippi River in Iowa, but in a television studio in Manhattan, where Bradley's staff had booked time for him o do a series of back-to-back interviews with stations in Washington state, in preparation for their primary. Bradley seemed loose and relaxed. But - and I don't think this is my imagination - there was more of a stoop to his shoulders, less of a spring to his step.
This was a short interview, but he continued to talk about his passion the things that have driven him to make this run. I asked him about the perception that he was aloof and a bit distant; he responded that some of the stories he's heard on the campaign trail, from Americans struggling to make it, have made him cry.
He did acknowledge his reputation as a loner. "What do you think is your biggest fault?" I asked. "That I sometimes try to do things too much on my own," he replied.
But as Bradley well knows, being independent is also a huge asset, as John McCain is finding out. So why hasn't this honorable man, this American basketball icon been cutting through, even with Michael Jordan's endorsement? And why were "informed observers" so surprised by the fact that it's the Republican challenger not the Democrat who's scoring points.
Part of it is that Al Gore started running a better campaign and George Bush didn't. Part of it is that there is more of a substantive difference between Bush and McCain than there is between Gore and Bradley. And part of it is that Bradley is running against the incumbent vice president in an administration that presided over an unprecedented economic boom.
But there is something else going on, something that even the most seasoned political watchers have trouble defining, and that is simply whether the public will take to a candidate. Despite all of Bradley's "star" credentials, he hasn't been able to give Democrats a real reason to give him their votes.
So the experts were wrong. McCain took off and Bradley didn't. Bush has proven vulnerable; Gore less so. And what this demonstrates is that there's a reason we have campaigns. If prognosticators could really predict what was going to happen, candidates wouldn't need to slog through the cornfields in Iowa or show up at factories in Michigan. And once again this year, American voters are proving that they are ones who call the shots.