WASHINGTON (AP) _ Al Gore's presidential campaign defended the hiring of two bitter rivals as good politics, but Republicans said Friday the personnel move was an act of desperation.

Bob Squier is both a close adviser and friend to Gore and a specialist in political advertising for the campaign. Carter Eskew, who has described Squier as his mentor and has known Gore for years, was hired last week to help refine Gore's message.

The pair worked together at one of Washington's top political consulting firms, but parted company on bitter terms in 1993. They have given conflicting reasons for Eskew's departure, but Eskew acknowledges leaving the firm without talking to Squier.

``The bottom line on this is we are already working together with the common goal of getting Al Gore elected president,'' Squier said in a telephone interview Friday. ``One of my partners just met with him. We're all working together to get the vice president elected.''

Democratic consultant Geoff Garin said Eskew and Squier have ``a lot of history'' to work through. ``They've been put in a difficult position. but they're both professionals,'' he said. ``My bet is they're going to work through it, but it's going to take some time.''

Gore campaign spokesman Roger Salazar said Eskew's hiring should not be taken as a sign that something was amiss with the vice president's campaign. ``It's a sign that we are building a strong media team to get the vice president's message out to the American people,'' he said.

Republicans portrayed it differently.

``Al Gore is desperate,'' said Mike Collins, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee. ``He has Bill Clinton second-guessing him, Hillary Clinton upstaging him and Bill Bradley nipping at his heels.''

Gore is the front-runner in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, but Bill Bradley has raised enough money to challenge him. In a head-to-head matchup with the Republican front-runner, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, Gore trails by as many as 15 percentage points in recent national polls.

Squier said he and Eskew didn't talk with each other after Eskew left their firm because ``there wasn't any reason for us to talk together. Now there is.''

He declined to go into details about their dispute and said the media was making too much of it.

In an article Friday, The New York Times quoted Squier as saying he had not talked publicly about Eskew's reasons for leaving the firm ``because it would be harmful to Gore if I did.'' He later called the newspaper back to say Eskew left in a money dispute. Eskew told the Times he left the firm because he needed to establish himself professionally.

Eskew declined a request for an interview Friday, as did campaign manager Tony Coelho.

``There's huge bad blood,'' said Dick Morris, a former consultant to President Clinton and now a frequent critic of the administration. ``Even if these guys were best friends, you don't bring in two rival firms to do your media and your polling _ certainly you don't bring in two sworn enemies. It's like hiring the Albanians and the Serbs to work on your campaign.''

Morris said a rivalry between the two aides that is played out in the media could undermine a Gore campaign that already ``is struggling badly.''

Eskew is a longtime confidant of Gore and worked on Clinton's 1992 campaign. He has been a partner in the issues advocacy firm of Bozell Eskew.

Eskew's clients include pharmaceutical manufacturers, a life insurance foundation and Empire Blue Cross/Blue Shield, New York state's largest health care company. He also produced a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign for the tobacco industry that is credited with helping kill the Senate's tobacco bill last year. The American Lung Association protested his hiring by the Gore team.