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Bradley's Defining Issue

The race for the Democratic presidential nomination is shaping up as more of a contest than many expected. The underdog, former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, has managed to get his share of headlines and campaign funds.

But he's still well behind Vice President Al Gore on both those counts, and in the polls. The real test of his value as a candidate, perhaps, will be whether he injects some substance into his party's selection process.

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Mr. Bradley made a good start recently by promising that race relations in the US will be a theme of his campaign. That theme can be polarizing if handled wrong - taking a dogmatic stand on the affirmative-action debate, for instance, or suggesting that legislation or legal action alone hold the answers to racial tensions.

Bradley's tack is different. In a speech last week he observed: "Our task is more difficult and more subtle - but if we're successful, more long-lasting. It is to vanquish racial discord from our hearts and minds."

A tall order, but a good one. Can a political campaign throw any light on how to go about it as a nation?

Doubtless both Bradley and Gore will be attentive to the black vote, an important part of their party's base. But Americans generally should be interested to hear what they - and Republican contenders, too - have to say on the subject of racial harmony. It remains, at the end of the 20th century, a key to creating a better America.

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