WASHINGTON -- By choosing Bill Daley to run his campaign, Vice President Al Gore has sent a clear and revealing message to the political community that he recognizes his candidacy is in serious trouble.
There is no assurance, of course, that a new chairman can correct things that are wrong with his campaign. But admitting the need for help is at least a first step.
This is not a case of a candidate turning to an old friend in time of need. Mr. Gore and Mr. Daley have been political allies in the administration of President Clinton, but they are not close personal friends. And in his time as secretary of commerce, Mr. Daley was never consulted by Mr. Gore for political advice although it was widely acknowledged throughout the administration that the Chicago lawyer was the most astute politician in the Cabinet.
One of Mr. Daley's most valuable assets is that he has never thought of himself as first and foremost an inside-the-Beltway player. Although he kept an apartment here, his family remained in Chicago and he commuted on weekends. "He's not a Washington guy," an old friend observes. "His feet are still planted in Chicago."
Given his history, this is not surprising. Mr. Daley is the son of the legendary Mayor Richard J. Daley and brother of the current Mayor Richard M. Daley. So he grew up in the family business. He has a history of success as both a banker and lawyer in Chicago, and he has been a key player in presidential campaigns in Illinois for several Democratic candidates. As secretary of commerce, he managed to avoid the accusations directed at his predecessor, the late Ron Brown, of showing favoritism toward businesses that supported the Democrats financially.
More to the point, Mr. Daley has become what in sports is called "the go-to guy" in handling tough situations. He played a key role for Clinton in winning approval for the North American Free Trade Agreement and this year in passing the China trade bill. That history has caused some muttering among union leaders, but Mr. Daley's party and political credentials are too solid for that grumbling to be seen as anything other than pro forma.
Some of the weaknesses in the Gore campaign may be easy to correct, such as the cases in which the staff work falls far short of adequate. The other day, for example, the vice president was scheduled to hold an event at a Roman Catholic hospital in Scranton, Pa., that became an embarrassment and had to be relocated when the local bishop objected because of Mr. Gore's commitment to abortion rights.
Anyone who knows anything about Pennsylvania or abortion politics knows that Scranton is absolute poison for a pro-choice politician -- and has been since 1976 when candidate Jimmy Carter arrived to be greeted by several thousand protesters stirred up by an angry bishop. The city is the home of the late Gov. Robert Casey, the most outspoken abortion critic in the Democratic Party.
But finding someone who knows something about Scranton is one thing and solving the problems of Al Gore is quite another. He didn't reach a point at which he is running 10 percent behind Gov. George W. Bush of Texas in three different opinion polls because of scheduling blunders. It is not the fault of some advance man that Mr. Gore's negatives keep rising.
Because he has no political baggage, Mr. Daley is better positioned to be a spokesman for the campaign than Tony Coelho, his predecessor as chairman and the focus of ethics investigations. But can he persuade Mr. Gore to avoid the kind of clumsy mistake he is making this week by proposing retirement savings accounts that sound to the untutored ear very much like the private investment accounts proposed by Mr. Bush -- an initiative Mr. Gore has been denouncing as too risky?
And can Mr. Daley persuade Mr. Gore to adopt a less pedantic tone in his political rhetoric, a tone that many voters see as talking down to them?
All along, the premise in the Democratic Party has been that the vice president eventually would demonstrate the superiority of his qualifications for the White House, in debates in September and October, if not sooner. But by turning to Bill Daley, Al Gore is saying that he isn't willing to let things slide this summer.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.