At the time, Bradley, who had retired a year earlier from a star-studded career with the New York Knicks, said he understood the Jews' decision to support the incumbent, but stressed that he, too, would be a good friend to the Jewish community and expected the same support once he was in office.
He was right. He won that year and went on to serve three terms in the Senate -- with strong Jewish support -- before retiring in 1996.
Now, as Bradley takes on Vice President Al Gore for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, Jews, who make up one of the most consistent voting blocs within the party, are taking stock of Bradley's career and his relationship with the Jewish community.
Many longtime Jewish activists in Washington say that although Bradley was always supportive on issues such as Israel and the plight of Soviet Jewry, he never took a leading role in sponsoring legislation.
They say this contrasts with Gore, who they describe as a leader on Jewish issues during his 16 years in the House and Senate and during his seven years as vice president of an administration strongly supported by many Jews.
Morris Amitay, who served as executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee from 1974 to 1980 and now heads a pro-Israel political action committee, said that while Bradley was "not particularly a Middle East maven," officials at the pro-Israel lobby "always considered Bradley a good friend of Israel -- a solid supporter" on issues such as foreign aid to Israel.
Bradley has built up considerable Jewish financial and political support. And several of his top aides are Jews: Doug Berman, his campaign chairman; Gina Glantz, his campaign manager; spokesman Eric Hauser; and Marcia Aronoff, a top adviser who worked as an aide to Bradley while he was a senator and now is working out of his West Orange, N.J., campaign headquarters.
Indeed, Aronoff disputes the view that Bradley was not a leader on issues important to Jews. In a recent telephone interview, she detailed his successful efforts to pass legislation during the oil crisis -- which stretched through the 1970s -- that directed the Carter administration to fill U.S. petroleum reserves as a way to wean it from its dependence on oil from the Arab countries.
Aronoff said Bradley strongly opposed the sale of AWACS, a sophisticated radar plane, to Saudi Arabia; was an early co-sponsor of 1995 legislation aimed at moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; and opposed a 1986 tax reform bill that would have taxed scholarships, including those some Orthodox institutions give their students.
But Rabbi Menachem Genack, head of the kashrut division of the Orthodox Union and a New Jersey Democratic Party activist close to both President Clinton and Gore, said both Bradley and Gore would make good presidents, but he thinks Gore would be better.
"I know where his heart is," Genack said of Gore, expressing the view of many Jewish Democratic activists. He added that he believes that "there is no comparison" between Gore and Bradley's leadership on Israel and other key issues.
Rep. Jerold Nadler, (D-N.Y.), a Jewish legislator who represents parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn, said that he believes both Bradley and Gore are good on issues of Jewish concern. But he is supporting Bradley because he believes he is a "much more electable candidate" against the eventual Republican nominee, who at this point appears to be Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
Recent polls show Bush easily beating either Gore or Bradley in a two-person race.
Some other prominent Jews who have thrown their support behind Bradley include Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.); Abe Pollin, owner of the Washington Wizards; Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks; and Louis Susman of Solomon Brothers.
It is difficult to assess Jewish financial giving to Bradley because he does not accept political action committee contributions or "bundled" contributions, which is money that is given to a group that in turn passes the money to the candidate earmarked by the contributor.
But Ira Forman, the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Coalition, said Bradley "has gotten very significant support from the Jewish community.''
And although Gore easily leads Bradley in various national polls, recent polling of the Jewish Democratic vote in New York -- where Jewish voters make up 25 percent of Democratic voters -- indicates that the two candidates will be battling for the Jewish vote there.
The Advance Man
"I'm Paul," said the short man at the Westwood Community Center, dressed in slacks and an open-necked sport shirt. After some slow shifting of mental gears, we realized that we were facing Paul Wellstone, the senior senator from Minnesota, in town to advance Bill Bradley's bid for the presidency.
Wellstone was the first person in Congress to endorse Bradley, and last week he hit the hustings for his man. He wasn't aware of any organized movement for Bradley in the Jewish community, but felt that his candidate would appeal to the predominantly center-to-liberal Jewish constituency.
As a pragmatic politician, Wellstone also has a pragmatic reason for supporting Bradley. "He is the Democrat with the best chance to win the presidency next year, and help return the House of Representatives to Democratic control," he said.
Accompanied by his wife Sheila, Wellstone, 55, is an interesting character himself. He stands five-feet and five-and-a-half inches and is an ex-champion college wrestler and veteran political science professor. The son of a Russian immigrant -- who changed the family name from Wechselstein to Wellstone -- he represents a state whose 40,000 Jews make up less than 1 percent of the population.
As for Bradley, Wellstone adds, "It's the first time I've ever supported a tall person for office."--Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor