Vice President Gore dropped pollster Mark Penn yesterday as part of an accelerating effort to refocus his ailing presidential campaign, an operation Gore and his senior strategists concluded was bogged down with too many consultants with too many competing outside interests.
Gore replaced Penn with veteran Democratic pollster Harrison Hickman, just two days after he announced he was moving his campaign "lock, stock and barrel" to Nashville.
Penn has been a pivotal adviser to President Clinton for the past four years in his capacity as pollster for the Democratic National Committee. He and partner Doug Schoen also are advising Hillary Rodham Clinton. Combined with his work for Gore, this put Penn in an unprecedented position in modern Washington: at ground zero in the political operations of the country's three most prominent Democrats. His firm also does extensive corporate work, including polling for Microsoft.
To a growing number of Penn critics in the Gore camp, this lengthy roster of clients became emblematic of a campaign in which several top advisers seemed to approach the presidential campaign with wavering attention spans and divided loyalties.
Penn also faced questions about his strategic judgments. Some Gore advisers believe that the vice president was caught flatfooted by the strong nomination challenge being waged by former senator Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), although Penn loyalists said yesterday that his numbers did capture Bradley's rise in recent months.
Perhaps more important, Penn does not believe that "Clinton fatigue" is a major factor in 2000 politics, say those familiar with his thinking. This was an assessment at odds with some critical voices in the Gore camp who believe that overcoming the nation's weariness with Clinton is the key challenge confronting the vice president.
Penn yesterday said he accepted Gore's decision as a sensible change. "He needed someone who could devote full time to his campaign," said Penn. "It makes perfect sense for me to do the DNC and someone else to do the primaries."
Campaign chairman Tony Coelho said of Penn: "He's got a lot of business in the primary season and we need somebody focused on our business. He's going to stay involved with the DNC and will advise us."
But Coelho added that Hickman will have the authority to hire other pollsters for specific projects.
Penn's ouster underscores the uncertainty permeating Gore's operation. Just days ago, sources said, Penn was assuring associates that his status was secure, as in fact Gore senior strategists were telling others it was.
All during these assurances, however, sources said Gore message advisers Carter Eskew and Robert Shrum were recruiting Hickman.
Unlike Penn's connection to the Clintons, Hickman worked for Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey's 1992 presidential campaign, recommending aggressive attacks on Bill Clinton, particularly on the draft issue. Like Eskew, Hickman's past has some links working for Gore's bitter enemies in the tobacco industry.
Penn's exit may reduce tensions among Gore's top rung. Several Democratic sources said Coelho and Penn had a falling out earlier over the issue of guns. Penn had proposed that Gore aggressively use the gun issue in his campaign but that Coelho, after checking with friends on Capitol Hill, decided not to do so. "Mark and Tony got in a screaming match and haven't talked since," one Democrat said.
In another staff change, campaign manager Craig Smith, who is second in line to Coelho, said he was stepping down rather than uprooting his family and moving to Nashville. He has two daughters in grade school.
Meanwhile yesterday, Bradley's campaign chairman, Doug Berman, sent a letter to Coelho outlining Bradley's willingness to meet Gore in a New Hampshire town meeting on Oct. 27 and in debates in Iowa, New Hampshire and California during the primary season.
But the Bradley camp expressed no interest in other, earlier debates, as Gore is calling for, and made several digs at the vice president's "sudden interest" in such encounters.
Staff writer Ceci Connolly contributed to this report.