It's normal for high-level operatives in political campaigns to stab each other in the back. In Vice President Gore's campaign, they're stabbing each other in the front -- and on the front pages. This is not a good sign.
Ever since Gore brought in former California congressman Tony Coelho to take charge of his effort, the political press has feasted on stories of deck chairs being rearranged, personalities clashing, careers jeopardized.
The clash best suited for Oprah is between two of Gore's oldest and most trusted advisers, media consulting stars Bob Squier and Carter Eskew.
In a classic of a father-son relationship gone bad, the 44-year-old Eskew broke with the 64-year-old Squier some years ago. Squier never forgave his protege for going off on his own. While Squier worked at Gore's side, Eskew made a pile of money working for those tobacco companies Al Gore likes to denounce. Now Eskew has been brought into the campaign as "message czar."
Squier responded by sending Gore an exploding package in the form of a front-page New York Times interview. Squier (1) insisted he's loyal to Gore, and (2) said he had "no idea" how he'd work with Eskew.
Gore's aides will play down this melodrama as it develops. "I can't think of a single voter stepping into the booth and deciding on the basis of whether Carter and Bob are getting along," one Gore lieutenant sighed in an interview.
Well, sure. But voters do judge the competence of candidates in part by how they hold a campaign together. Gore aides acknowledge that the current shake-up, as one puts it delicately, "ain't been smooth."
This matters because Gore is running 15 to 20 points behind Republican front-runner George W. Bush. Many Democrats are flirting with the idea that former senator Bill Bradley, Gore's sole challenger for the nomination, may be a better bet to beat Bush.
Gore has less time than his loyalists want to think. He needs to move the campaign away from staff battles and toward a battle over issues.
The one part of the Gore campaign that's worked so far is his series of policy-heavy addresses -- on education, faith-based institutions and an announcement speech that brimmed with specifics. In a Boston speech yesterday on crime, Gore called for photo licenses for all new handgun owners and a ban on Saturday night specials -- an issue Bradley has been pushing hard. Gore also urged a "stay clean to stay out" drug testing and treatment policy for parolees and defendants in drug crimes.
But issues are also part of Gore's problem with Bush. The polls showing Bush ahead also find that voters see Bush more favorably than the Republican Congress on -- well, core Democratic issues.
The Battleground Poll conducted by Republican pollster Ed Goeas and Democratic pollster Celinda Lake asked voters whether they had more confidence in Democrats or Republicans in Congress in dealing with education. The voters picked the Democrats by 46 percent to 31 percent, a 15-point advantage. But when the same question was asked about the presidential candidates, Bush and Gore were dead even at 40 percent each.
And so it went on other matters. Congressional Democrats had a 21-point advantage on Social Security, Gore a lead of only six points. On health care, congressional Democrats were ahead of Republicans by 29 points; Gore was ahead of Bush by only 12.
"At the moment, there are two different brands out there," says Republican pollster David Winston. The Bush brand is doing better than the congressional Republican brand.
Gore has an unlikely ally in the cause of challenging Bush on issues. Last May, Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes tossed out a little-noticed invitation to Gore for a debate on "how we can save Social Security."
Wouldn't it be interesting, as Ross Perot likes to say, for Gore to accept provided other candidates -- Bush and Bradley especially -- agreed to join and that other debates were held on such questions as education and health care? Refusenik candidates could be charged with ducking substance.
True, a multicandidate, two-party debate could be a zoo. Neither Bush nor Bradley has an interest in shaking things up now. And it may be too early for most voters to notice. "Would it get the public's attention?" asks Democratic pollster and informal Gore adviser Mark Mellman. "Probably not."
But another Gore lieutenant concedes: "Would it be advantageous to have the terrain of combat shift to issues? The answer is, totally, yes."
Improvements in the conduct of campaigns are often driven by the self-interest of beleaguered candidates for whom substance is their only way out. Gore's political interest in getting his internal staff follies out of the papers coincides with the public's interest in campaign messages that are about more than feuding message makers.