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Inside Politics Distracts Gore's Campaign Team

July 17, 1999|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

WASHINGTON — At times this summer, Al Gore's race for the White House has seemed scripted less by Theodore White than Danielle Steele. New campaign aides are squabbling with old ones, key staffers are fretting about how they fit in and the man brought in to ensure order is instead sparking controversy.

The intrigue has some Democrats worried that Gore's advisors may be too busy elbowing each other to fully engage the vice president's principal rivals: Democrat Bill Bradley, the former senator from New Jersey, and Republican Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the front-runner for the GOP nomination.

"All campaigns have these problems, but this is over the top," says one Democratic congressional aide close to the campaign. "You have a group of people who have to spend two years together working for a common goal, and if they have to spend their time worrying, 'Am I going to keep my job?' it's a problem."

The turmoil has raised questions in some quarters about Gore's management style. Few are surprised he's brought in some new advisors; after all, he's trailed Bush by double-digit margins in the polls all year. What's caused concern, though, is that Gore has added the new aides without removing any old ones. That has led Democrats to fear that he seems reluctant to make tough decisions, while others worry that he may be trying to hedge his bets with all of his party's factions.

"Trying to read too much into staff changes in campaigns is usually a mistake," said one longtime centrist advisor to Gore. "But part of what you have to look at is does this reflect a mentality of trying to cover all bases."

The sheer scale of Gore's operation was driven home by campaign finance reports filed this week. In the first half of this year, the vice president spent 73% more on salaries and overhead than Bradley, according to an analysis for The Times and CNN by the nonpartisan Campaign Study Group.

Always top-heavy with competing centers of power, Gore's effort has grown even more fractious as newly installed campaign chairman Tony Coelho has moved to assert his control.

In doing so, Coelho hired a new message guru named Carter Eskew, who's been embroiled in a nearly decade-long feud with a former business partner who also happens to be Gore's current media advisor, Robert Squier.

Coelho also added a pollster, Celinda Lake, who has been predicting doom for Democrats who don't distance themselves from President Clinton--a view diametrically opposite that of Gore's existing pollster, Mark Penn, who also happens to conduct Clinton's surveys.

Power Flows Toward Coelho

Meanwhile, sources say Ronald Klain, the highly regarded chief of staff in Gore's vice presidential office, has been considering whether to quit as power has drained away toward Coelho.

These types of tensions are polarizing opinion about Coelho, the former Merced, Calif., congressman Gore plucked from the business world this spring--after nearly a decade out of politics--to direct his campaign.

Gore named Coelho partly in response to criticism that he was micromanaging the campaign himself. Coelho's supporters say he is trying to impose order and streamline the hierarchy in an organization that had quickly become known for indecision.

But others charge Coelho is moving mostly to strengthen his own position and demonstrate that he is in control--the equivalent of former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig's "I am in charge" declaration after Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981.

Coelho "wants to be the one power center, so he is destabilizing all the other power centers," said one longtime Gore supporter. "But I don't think he'll be completely successful."

Coelho declined to comment.

This backbiting may be remote to most voters, but it's riveted much of the Washington political world, especially after Squier took his grievances public in an interview with the New York Times last week.

Such infighting is hardly unique--or even fatal--to presidential campaigns. In 1996, Clinton won reelection even though several of his key operatives--particularly liberal White House aides Harold M. Ickes and George Stephanopoulos--despised his chief strategist, Dick Morris.

Gore Outlines Agenda in Policy Speeches

So far, the tension inside Gore's camp has not appreciably affected the development of his message. In a process largely supervised by Klain and former White House aides Elaine Kamarck and Christopher Edley, Gore has been laying out his agenda in a series of policy addresses--the latest came on crime Monday--as detailed as those offered by any of his rivals in either party.

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