CINCINNATI -- Al Gore appointed Commerce Secretary William M. Daley as chairman of his presidential campaign Thursday after Tony Coelho, the job's controversial occupant, resigned citing health reasons.
The change comes amid concerns among many Democrats about presumptive Republican nominee George W. Bush's steady lead over Gore in most national polls since both men clinched their party's nominations in March.
Coelho, Gore and several sources inside the vice president's campaign insisted the move was motivated solely by Coelho's health problems, which include an inflamed colon that hospitalized him this week. But several Democratic insiders said they hoped the appointment of the well-respected Daley would help shift attention away from the campaign's internal operation toward Gore's message and agenda.
Coelho, a former Democratic House member from California's Central Valley, was credited with streamlining and stabilizing Gore's campaign last fall so it could better respond to a surprisingly strong primary challenge from former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley. But Coelho's sometimes abrasive personal manner, and Gore's troubles in the polls, had generated an undercurrent of discontent with his leadership.
''Obviously, everybody is going to be skeptical...and think Tony was looking for an exit strategy,'' said a senior Democratic legislative aide whose boss spoke with Gore and Coelho on Wednesday. ''That may or may not have been part of it. But the health problem was real.''
Coelho's hard-driving personality had generated as many detractors as admirers throughout his career. That pattern continued inside the Gore campaign, with growing complaints in recent weeks about his aggressive style.
One source who's worked with Daley said his style was ''more collegial. ... He's one to let people do their jobs if they are doing it properly.''
Although insiders say it is too early to tell what moves the 51-year-old Daley will make, few expect wholesale changes among Gore's other top aides or the campaign's operation. The vice president already has focused more directly on his message, accentuated by the ''peace and prosperity'' tour he recently launched.
One likely shift is that Daley will assume much greater public visibility than Coelho. Coelho had been constrained in that role partly because of ethical questions he faced regarding his tenure as the director of a U.S. mission to a world's fair in Portugal two years ago.
Daley has never held a position of this magnitude in a national campaign. But as the son of legendary Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley and the brother of current Mayor Richard M. Daley, he has a long pedigree in politics.
He also has a strong record of aiding President Clinton. In 1993, he served temporarily as an aide to spearhead the drive to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement. He helped plan the smoothly running 1996 Democratic convention in Chicago that re-nominated Clinton and Gore. He took the helm of the Commerce Department in 1997 and played a key role in the recent House passage of a bill to normalize U.S. trade relations with China.
Daley joined Gore at a hastily assembled news conference Thursday in the warehouse of a Cincinnati wholesale produce company, where the vice president was campaigning. Gore dismissed suggestions there had been any move to oust Coelho, calling him ''a wonderful chair and a wonderful friend.''
Coelho, who turned 58 Thursday, was a controversial figure from the moment of his unexpected appointment as Gore's campaign chairman in May 1999. For one thing, he had not played a major role in Democratic politics since his abrupt resignation from Congress in 1989 amid questions about his purchase of a $100,000 junk bond from a troubled California savings and loan.
Coelho initially won good marks for redirecting a Gore operation that appeared to be dangerously foundering in the face of Bradley's challenge for the Democratic nomination. Grumbling about Coelho, though, began as early as last fall when a State Department audit accused him of lax management and lavish spending when he directed the U.S. Mission to a World Exposition in Portugal in 1998. Those questions grew louder this March, when sources indicated the State Department had forwarded the allegations to criminal investigators.
Coelho has unwaveringly insisted that he is innocent of any wrongdoing. But the accusations raised uncomfortable questions for Gore -- who has faced a sustained attack on his own ethics from Republicans.
The State Department refused comment Thursday on the probe's status.
Above all, Coelho faced pressure because, after catching Bush in the polls earlier this year, Gore had consistently fallen behind in the latest surveys.
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