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  • Top Gore Campaigner Makes His Mark

    Tony Coelho
    Campaign chairman Tony Coelho munches popcorn in his modest corner office at Gore headquarters. (Robert A. Reeder The Post)
    By Dan Balz and Ceci Connolly
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Saturday, August 7, 1999; Page A1

    Every presidential campaign is a reflection of its candidate, but to an almost unprecedented degree, the campaign of Vice President Gore also has begun to reflect the image of its increasingly dominant chairman, former House Democratic whip Tony Coelho.

    Barely three months after assuming command of Gore's struggling campaign, Coelho has begun to impose discipline on an operation that has become known for its competing power centers and warring factions. He has freed the vice president to concentrate on campaigning, reduced the authority of some of Gore's longtime confidants and redistributed it among recruits.

    This week's resignation by vice presidential chief of staff Ronald A. Klain underscored Coelho's dominance atop Gore's operation. Having consolidated his power, Coelho now must demonstrate that he has the answers to fix a campaign that has been plagued by problems all year and faces a stiffer-than-expected nomination fight against former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley.

    Coelho doesn't have much time to prove that the campaign is on track. Even his friends argue that if he has not demonstrated that the campaign has turned the corner soon after Labor Day, confidence in Gore's operation will diminish sharply.

    In his first extended interview about the state of the campaign, Coelho asserted that the improvements already have begun. Gore, he said, is a more relaxed and confident candidate than he was a few months ago; the campaign's organizations in Iowa and New Hampshire have begun to come together; and, despite criticisms, fund-raising and spending are on sound financial footing.

    "In the development of any business, there are some growing pains," Coelho said as he munched popcorn in his modest corner office at Gore headquarters. "I've been through those many times. . . . We're about at the end of that whole process."

    Critics of the campaign claim the Gore operation remains top-heavy with consultants but weak in the consistency and delivery of its message. They say Coelho, in his push to impose order, has produced anxiety in an already jittery staff. And they worry that Gore's team remains unrealistic about the Bradley threat and has yet to show it is ready to wage a general election campaign against a candidate like Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican front-runner.

    Coelho acknowledged that further changes are in the works and that many of those he has instituted have yet to produce visible improvements in the campaign. That may not happen, he said, until sometime this fall.

    At a minimum, Coelho's arrival has produced one significant change for Gore. For the first time in memory, the candidate who insisted on being his own campaign manager has relinquished control of his own campaign.

    In the past, Coelho said, "Al had lots of people running his operations, but he never let loose." This year, he added, Gore "decided that in order to really have the dialogue he needed to have [with voters], he had to let loose. So when he came to me, he said what he wanted to do was turn it over. . . . I think that's the first time he's done that."

    Gore's decision to reach outside his inner circle and recruit Coelho to run his campaign was a clear admission not only of his own frustration with the problems that existed but also a recognition that he couldn't do the job himself.

    "He basically said he was trying to be vice president, trying to be a candidate for president and be general chairman of his campaign and he couldn't do all three jobs," Coelho said. "What I've done is taken away responsibility for some areas and put them some place else. I've reorganized."

    Using personal ties to elected Democrats and major donors, Coelho has emerged with the sort of cachet no other aide or adviser in the vice president's circle has been able to muster.

    Some prominent Gore supporters, including two Cabinet officers, said Coelho was making progress. "Tony Coelho has brought order to the campaign and credibility with key elements of the established Democratic Party," said Energy Secretary Bill Richardson. Labor Secretary Alexis Herman added, "Things are coming together. I'm hearing more positive talk."

    Privately, some Democratic friends of Gore were less optimistic. "Tony shoots first and asks questions later," said one fund-raiser supporting Gore.

    "One thing Tony hasn't gotten control of is the whole message operation," one Democrat complained. "Tony's forte is not modern-day message politics. His job is to make the trains run on time and get them organized."

    Coelho agreed that the most pressing problem facing the campaign when he arrived was "to bring clarity to the message process." To that end, he said, he hired Carter Eskew and has given him full authority to develop a sharper message, which so far has focused on showing off the candidate's experience and what aides say is a record of identifying big issues just around the corner.

    But Eskew, who has a long relationship with Gore, came with baggage. He not only led the tobacco industry's advertising war against the Clinton administration's anti smoking legislation last year but also had a bitter falling out seven years ago with his former partner, Bob Squier, who was Gore's principal media adviser.

    Eskew's hiring prompted Squier to complain in a New York Times interview that he had "no idea" how the two would work together. Asked this week how he could tolerate such a public display of bickering, Coelho said frostily, "My reaction to that story is a personal one. I had that discussion with Bob and I am moving forward. The important issue here is that Carter is in charge of the message team."

    Coelho then added that while Squier remains a friend of his and the vice president's, Eskew and Squier's current partner Bill Knapp "are driving" the message development and "that's what I want."

    To Coelho's admirers, his handling of the Eskew-Squier relationship is testimony to his toughness and decisiveness. "The Gore organization had a lot of people with equal power and authority but simply needed someone with the ultimate authority to say yes or no, we're going to do it the vice president's way, here are your marching orders," a Coelho friend said. "One of Tony's great gifts is that he is not a hand-wringer when it comes to making decisions."

    But skeptics wonder whether Coelho's determination to assert his authority at the expense of others will leave permanent scars on the campaign's staff. "There is a fair amount of blood in the water," said one White House official close to the vice president.

    The same official said the resignation of Klain, who announced this week he was taking a job with a prominent law firm in Washington, was a huge loss and one that should have been avoided. Coelho insisted he tried to persuade Klain to stay on, but like other longtime Gore confidants, Klain saw his role diminished by Coelho's assertion of power.

    And Coelho warns that further staff changes are likely, prompting a new round of speculation about the responsibilities of some current advisers, including pollster Mark Penn and campaign manager Craig Smith.

    Coelho conceded that his arrival bruised some feelings and that he was openly testing the talents of a staff he didn't know well. "I could have come in and fired everybody and started over," he said. "That isn't what this campaign is all about. This campaign is about building."

    Coelho also acknowledged that, after 10 years out of day-to-day politics, he was rusty when he arrived at the Gore headquarters, particularly in his knowledge of a younger generation of Democratic political operatives.

    To help educate himself, Coelho has been meeting regularly with a group of former staffers and friends from his days as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the 1980s, something few senior Gore advisers know much about. "They call me and chew me out," Coelho said, referring to his kitchen cabinet. "They give me advice. They don't have any trouble telling me what they think."

    During the interview, Coelho was joined by Eskew and by Laura Quinn, the vice president's deputy chief of staff who will oversee the campaign's communication operation. He said Eskew will sort through the advice from the campaign's many consultants, reassemble the stable of advisers and determine how best to present Gore to the voters.

    Eskew said he would have his team in place by the end of the summer, but added: "I don't anticipate there being dramatic change in what we're doing" in presenting Gore publicly.

    Coelho agreed. "We don't have a problem in packaging the candidate," he said. "What we have to do is educate the public as to who Al Gore is."

    But that is something Gore's current and former political advisers have been saying for months, with little to show for it.

    Coelho admitted that his first few months have been a learning experience both for himself and for others in the campaign but said he hopes the rest of the team understands that, despite his "tough, blunt" style, his only commitment is to elect Gore president.

    But by establishing himself as the virtual czar of the Gore operation, Coelho also has set himself up to take the blame if things don't improve quickly. No problem, he said: "I've suggested [to Gore] that in the growing of any business, at some point it may mean you get rid of the person in charge and move on to somebody else."

    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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