Anti-smoking groups and Republicans yesterday criticized the decision by Vice President Gore's campaign to hire Carter Eskew, the architect of Big Tobacco's $40 million advertising campaign last year that demolished hopes for tobacco control legislation favored by the Clinton administration.

"Carter Eskew did a terrific job of harming the greatest piece of tobacco legislation ever to come down the pike," said Bill Novelli, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, which supported legislation by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) last year that would have raised the price of cigarettes by $1.10 a pack.

"I also believe Vice President Gore's commitment to protecting kids from tobacco was and is genuine," Novelli added. "I find it all ironic."

Republicans also seized on Gore's hiring of Eskew, citing the vice president's emotional denunciations of the tobacco industry at the 1996 Democratic National Convention. In his speech there, Gore attacked the industry for hooking his sister, who later died of lung cancer.

"They better open the windows at the Gore campaign," said Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson, "because the hypocrisy is so thick in the air, it burns the eyes."

Eskew will advise the campaign on Gore's "message," the overall political themes he will sound, campaign aides said.

In 1997, the cigarette industry had reached a settlement of anti-tobacco lawsuits with health groups and state attorneys general under which the companies agreed to pay $368 billion. But McCain's bill the following year, aimed at enshrining the deal into law, imposed new restrictions and increased the industry's penalties to $500 billion. The cigarette firms turned against the deal, and aired Eskew commercials slamming it.

One ad accused "politicians in Washington" of "voting to destroy our way of life." Another concluded, "Washington has gone cuckoo again."

The Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania said the ad campaign, the most expensive ever targeted at a piece of pending legislation, contained "misleading claims."

San Francisco anti-smoking activist Stan Glantz said that if Eskew maintains his ties to tobacco, "it's very serious. . . . It undercuts Gore's effectiveness on this issue."

Eskew, who is described by many Democratic operatives as brilliant and creative, is taking a leave of absence from his advertising company, Bozell Eskew, while remaining "of counsel" to its parent firm, BSMG Worldwide, industry executives said.

While his tobacco work largely has tailed off, he will not service that account while at the Gore campaign, the executives said. He might work for some other clients, pending approval from the campaign -- including Microsoft Corp., which is fighting an antitrust lawsuit filed by the Justice Department.

The announcement of Eskew's hiring on Thursday was striking for another reason: It reunites Eskew with his former campaign consulting partner, Robert Squier, who is one of Gore's closest advisers and who had a father-son relationship with Eskew before their bitter falling-out in 1992.

Squier, a godfather of modern political advertising, had recruited Eskew into his firm in 1981, and the two men developed a deep bond. "It was complicated and close," said one person who knows them. "It was an important relationship for both."

Eskew had known Gore when they were both Tennessee reporters and introduced him to Squier in 1984. Over time, Squier became one of Gore's closest advisers.

After working on the Clinton-Gore campaign in 1992, Eskew quit Squier's firm to form his own company, and Squier was enraged at what he perceived as Eskew's disloyalty. The breach has never been repaired, and the two men's campaign roles have not been delineated.

Eskew declined comment, and Squier could not be reached.

"This could be a disaster," said one man who knows them both. "It will be uncomfortable. But it would be great for Gore if he can keep them together. . . . Maybe Bob will welcome the wayward son home."

Staff writer Ceci Connolly contributed to this report.