Long-simmering tension between advisers to President Clinton and Vice President Gore boiled over anew yesterday in a dispute about Gore's political strategy of trying to distance himself from Clinton's scandal-tarred personal life.
The dispute is the latest example of the sniping and recriminations that have become common this year between the Clinton and Gore camps--a rivalry that is souring a once-smooth working relationship between the president and vice president and is becoming a significant stumbling block for Gore as his campaign tries to take off.
Clinton, according to various aides and confidants, has bridled at how freely Gore has spoken publicly recently of his displeasure about the president's relationship with former intern Monica S. Lewinsky. Clinton is particularly baffled, sources said, by what he believes is a deliberate strategy by some Gore advisers to talk about the scandal as a way of illustrating how different Gore's personal values are from Clinton's.
Various Gore advisers, meanwhile, renewed their complaints that the president and those around him are so concerned with Clinton's reputation that they are not giving Gore the space he needs to establish his own identity and message. "Gore has his own set of advisers and his own message," said an aide to Gore. "At the end of the day it's what Vice President Gore stands for and what he wants to do for the country."
Some on both sides of the dispute said the poor coordination between Clinton's team and Gore's is being exacerbated by turmoil in the Gore camp, which is beset by internecine warfare and pervasive rumors that campaign chairman Tony Coelho is planning a shake-up. The confusion has left some Gore advisers uncertain of their status and some on Clinton's team uncertain of who is making decisions about Gore's strategy.
Four sources, from different factions of the Gore camp, said they have heard recent talk of a Coelho "hit list." Two others close to Coelho said they anticipate "housecleaning" this summer. Several people speculate that Gore's chief of staff, Ron Klain, is in particular jeopardy, but Coelho denied that, saying, "The rumors about Ron Klain are not true. The vice president and I have full confidence in Ron's abilities and his judgment."
Klain did not return telephone calls yesterday, but Gore spokesman Chris Lehane said the notion of a hit list was "absolutely untrue."
Another political strategist remains jittery, however. "There are so many land mines in this operation," the strategist said. "There will be housecleaning, but what house and which servants?"
The latest feuding between the two camps was prompted by a New York Times story yesterday quoting an adviser to Clinton saying the president was "hurt" and "very upset" at Gore, and suggesting their relationship had suffered lasting damage.
Various White House aides yesterday called the account exaggerated, saying that Clinton, though prone to occasional venting, continues to get along well with Gore.
"I talked to the president; he was surprised by the story because it doesn't reflect at all the way he feels," said White House Chief of Staff John D. Podesta. "He has a great relationship with the vice president. He is not at all bothered by the vice president's statements."
But several people acknowledged that Clinton, and many of those around him, are offended by what they consider the zeal with which Gore's campaign is separating itself from Clinton.
Gore's announcement speech was laced with references to morality and personal values, which aides acknowledged were meant to draw an implicit contrast with Clinton.
His most stunning remarks, however, came in conversations with Tennessee reporters the night before his formal announcement. In those interviews, Gore for the first time acknowledged he was "upset" by the scandal and the "wasted time" of the year-long controversy. Referring to "that awful year we went through," he said: "I felt what the president did, especially as a parent, was inexcusable."
As a practical matter, Clinton confidants said, they considered these moves unwise politics; as a personal matter, Clinton advisers consider them ungracious behavior.
"What the vice president said was nothing that I haven't said myself," said James Carville, the strategist of the president's 1992 campaign, who remains close to both Clintons. "But what caused some irritation is how some people around him seemed to take pleasure in the fact that he said it."
The irritation was compounded by rumors in the days leading up to Gore's announcement speech June 16. While Clinton was traveling in Europe, White House sources said, word reached his traveling staff that early drafts of Gore's speech would draw an even sharper contrast between the two men. Clinton's staff got word not from Gore advisers, sources said, but from White House political director Minyon Moore, who called Europe.
Clinton was initially angered by Gore's plans, sources said, and his aides called Gore's staff to protest. Gore aides said yesterday that early and final drafts of the vice president's announcement speech did not change significantly. And Clinton aides said the president had no complaints about what Gore said.
"I spoke to the president minutes after the Gore announcement speech and he was very pleased by it," said pollster Mark Penn. "And as recently as yesterday, he told me he was very pleased by the direction of the Gore campaign."
But the confusion illustrates the distance that has grown up between the two teams, a suspicion that never existed before this year. And the second-guessing between the two camps flourishes.
"Establish your own identity. Don't talk about the need to establish your own identity," said former White House senior adviser Rahm Emanuel, critiquing the Gore strategy.
One Clinton adviser said: "Gore's campaign is trying to make Bill Clinton their primary opponent. That is absolutely nutty."
Dane Strother, a neutral Democratic consultant, said Gore is adapting the only viable strategy. "Gore has to continue separating himself from Clinton. There is a Clinton fatigue in this country," Strother said. "The best way is for him to continue talking about character; he separates himself from Clinton without stepping away from the policies."