It's taken me quite a while to make up my mind about the Democratic presidential contest. I find Al Gore as discouraging as everybody else does. Even if you agree with him, imagine trying to work up enthusiasm for Gore.

I once spent a day with Al Gore off the record, so I know there's a real human being in there somewhere. Lord knows what happened to it.

Meanwhile, Bill Bradley has been coming up and coming up. It's always been clear that the man is a class act, without a phony bone in his body.

The trouble is, class acts are a problem in this country. Adlai Stevenson was a class act, and he lost twice. I've had my political heart broken by class acts more times than I care to remember. I'm class-act-shy.

Almost every cycle we get some candidate greatly esteemed by those who know and care a lot about government -- John Anderson, Bruce Babbitt, Paul Tsongas -- some brainy, professorial type who appeals to some of the media, all the college kids and practically nobody else. No lunch-bucket appeal.

I long since decided that if the candidate doesn't have some Elvis to him, he ain't gonna make it. Bradley has zip in the Elvis department.

What he does have, and it takes a while to explain this, is Midwesterness. Not to paint with a broad brush or anything, but Midwesterners tend to be incredibly practical and incurably down-to-earth. (I base this opinion on the three years, including 18 winters, that I spent in Minnesota.)

Bradley represented New Jersey in the Senate, but he was raised in Missouri and it shows. He can be going along explaining some complicated policy -- it's like listening to a good teacher -- when it suddenly occurs to him to explain why we should be doing whatever-it-is in the first place.

"I think we should fix the roof while the sun is shining," he offers -- as homely a metaphor as one can find, but precisely the actual reason we need to make some changes in Social Security, Medicare, education, etc. Everybody nods, and then we go back to the gory details, which he explains so well that everybody then feels like an expert on the subject.

But will it sell in a 30-second sound bite? No question, Bradley is not a 30-second kind of guy. But if you listen to him for even 10 minutes, what you get is a sense of his depth, unflappability, seriousness and knowledge.

He also has very good manners, even inducing the notoriously over-caffeinated TV host Chris Matthews to calm down. If I may be crudely political here, he's the perfect candidate to put up against George W. Bush, who does have some shallow-twit tendencies.

Without being at all witty (I would guess he gets off a good line about once every 10 years), Bradley is capable of a wry take on things, including himself. For a man running for president, he's amazingly mellow, which is what comes of spending years of your life under the incredible pressure of playing in championship games -- state high school, college, Olympics, pros.

If you're used to 20,000 people screaming hysterically at you while you go for a free throw with a championship on the line, Chris Matthews is not likely to rattle you. This is a guy who knows how to play under pressure.

Bradley has one of those eerily perfect biographies: grew up in a small Midwestern town, top student, top athlete, Eagle Scout, committed Christian, Princeton, captain of the 1964 Olympic team, Rhodes scholar, Knicks star, U.S. Senate. Bradley was so strikingly mature and extraordinary even as a boy that John McPhee, the great New Yorker writer, did a profile of him as a college freshman that became the book A Sense of Where You Are.

The 10 years that Bradley spent playing pro ball gave him a rare understanding of what it is like to be black in America, the subject of the best and certainly the most passionate speech he ever made in the Senate. Those years also give us all the character clues. Everyone who ever watched Bradley play knows he made it on brains and hard work rather than great natural talent.

My favorite basketball story is from the Olympics, when Bradley was keen to beat the tough Soviet team. He knew that it would be a rough game and that the Soviets liked to call out their plays in Russian, expecting no one to understand. So Bradley went to Princeton's Slavic languages department and got them to teach him a Russian street phrase meaning roughly, "Watch it or be careful."

The first time he got an elbow thrown in his ribs, he used the phrase. The Russians got flustered, stopped calling out their plays and lost some of their harmony. The Americans won the gold.

His Senate career is also characteristic of the man in that Bradley took on a few tough issues, mastered them and in many cases got something done about them. His most notable contribution was the tax reform act of 1986, simplifying the code and lowering the top brackets. Brains and hard work -- never any flash or grandstanding or posturing. A lot of Bradley's Senate record is surprisingly conservative, however.

Bradley is a man of truly unusual stature; he seems to have been a grown-up all his life, and a man concerned with the most serious issues. He also talks to voters as though we're grownups, too.

True, he suffers from low-watt charisma. He will not dazzle you with his oratory or his nimble wit. He will, however, just impress the pants off of you with how much he knows and how serious and determined he is to get some big problems fixed. And he's the man who can do it.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.