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What It Took

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The winner is still uncertain, but here's the inside story of the key moments that propelled Bush and Gore to a deadlocked Election Day

MONEY DOES GROW ON TREES

"This is what the valley has been waiting for! This is what the valley has been waiting for!"

The old lady at the table in the center of the room is shouting like a high school cheerleader. It's April 1998, and George W. Bush is standing in front of a huge plate-glass window that frames much of Silicon Valley. Bush is out near Sand Hill Road, home to the venture capitalists, and he is talking with unusual passion about education, the New Economy and his record in Texas. The small banquet room is overflowing with VCs, dotcomers and gearheads who have paid $1,000 a plate to meet the man who might be the next President. Some arrived at the last minute, crashing the party, while others, like Katy Boyd, 78, a veteran Republican fund raiser, had apparently been eyeing this moment for years. "This is what the valley has been waiting for!"

When Bush heard the spontaneous outburst, he looked at the crowd and decided to unbuckle his full sermon for them--about his past, his family, his relationship with Democrats, the need for a "responsibility era" in Washington. Republicans had ignored Silicon Valley for years, but here was Bush, putting them at the top of his list. "He was in the zone," remembers Karl Rove, his chief strategist, who masterminded Bush's presidential run and was there that day. Even as Bush talked, he was working the crowd with his eyes, and couldn't help noticing one guy in particular whose head was bearing down on a note card. It was John Doerr, founder of TechNet, the new pipeline to Washington for high-tech California political money. Doerr was a Gore man, but he was taking down W.'s lengthy riff on education because he was impressed with it and realized that this guy could be a competitor for the hearts and dollars of Silicon Valley. By the time the candidate hit his stride, the venture capitalist's tiny handwriting had piled up into something looking like a ransom note. Bush could see what was happening, so when a question came about the Texas Governor's national ambitions, he fired his response not to the questioner in the crowd but directly at Doerr. "I hope you'll keep your powder dry, John," said Bush. "I hope you'll keep an open mind."

It would be like this for the next two years, really: Bush traveling the country, working the money guys, giving his spiel and sucking up most of the oxygen in the G.O.P.'s big tent. It would not be long before the Postal Service began delivering trays and trays of envelopes to the Virginia offices of the group hired to sort the dollars. The money would come in at a rate of about $300,000 a day, three times as much as any candidate had ever raised. The money machine would capture so much cash that Bush could not only win the G.O.P. primary, he could eliminate it.

All he had to do was convince the right people in the party that he could win. Which is why after the breakfast on Sand Hill Road, it was off to George Shultz's house on the Stanford University campus to re-enact a piece of political history of almost totemic importance. Dubya was going to pay a call on Ronald Reagan's Secretary of State and try to bring him on board. All Bush had to do was pass the oral exam--in the same way Reagan had with Shultz two decades before. The courtesy call was the first step toward capturing California's Balkanized Republican Party, but it was hardly a lay-up. The old Nixon and Reagan Cabinet officer had got crossways with Dubya's father and with his successor at State, James Baker. The trick was for W. to prove to Shultz that he wasn't a dunce--and that he could win.

And so for four hours, Bush and Shultz talked about the IMF and Bosnia and Russia and pretty much took a tour of the world. Condoleezza Rice and Michael Buskin were there. The conversation just went on and on, Rove recalled. Bush knew he had done fine when Shultz recalled the Reagan meeting and said, "I hope some of the luck wears off."

THE SUNDANCE KID

"A morgue!" Tony Coelho could not believe his eyes. Al Gore's campaign manager stared, astonished, at what lay on his desk. Gore had just announced he was going to pick up the campaign, scrape it off K Street and ship the whole thing to Tennessee. Except when an aide brought in the architectural plans and spread them out on Coelho's desk, "the place" turned out to be a former morgue. It was all there on the floor plan: the boning room, the tanning room, the cutting room. It was another ghastly metaphor in the making for the can't-get-started Gore campaign. Coelho couldn't believe it. "We were in a panic to find another place before the press found out about this one," said Coelho.

How did Gore's campaign get temporarily lost in his old backyard? Bill Clinton was the Man from Hope, and Bush likes to say he's from West Texas. Gore began the race with a huge disadvantage: voters couldn't tell who he was because they didn't know where he was from. Was he the prefect of St. Albans or the farm boy from Carthage, Tenn.? The twangy tobacco grower or the earnest arms controller?

Bill Clinton had long thought basing the campaign in Washington was a mistake. Gore's brother-in-law Frank Hunger had been harping on it since the spring; he convinced the Gores' daughter Karenna and finally even Gore's wife Tipper. Coelho too wanted to roll the dice, as he called it, but he knew that meant being stuck with a $60,000-a-month space in Washington. And with the fight against Bill Bradley looking as though it might drag through the spring, that was money the campaign could ill afford to spend. If you added the cost of another headquarters in Nashville, Coelho said later, "we'd probably still win the nomination, but we'd be penniless, and it would be worthless." But Karenna thought the problem was deeper than money. Her dad needed to be set free. "The last few years of the Administration were heavy ones," she explained, in a veiled reference to impeachment. After that, "the vice presidency is not the best platform to dive off from."

Gore was aware that a lot of people on his team were not fully committed to his cause, still working for other clients and interests. But as one of his top advisers admitted, "Gore wasn't fully invested in his campaign either." Finally, one night after a fund raiser in Maryland, Gore motioned Coelho to his car and asked him to ride back to the Veep's residence. "I've made up my mind," Gore said. "Let's roll it. Let's go to Nashville."

Except he didn't go. The man from Carthage remained in Washington. So, for the most part, did his inner circle: Bob Shrum, Carter Eskew and Tad Devine. Coelho went down; so did Donna Brazile, his fiery field marshal. It was an open secret in the capital: if you wanted to find top Gore campaign aides, you could try them on their 615-area-code cell phones--even though they might be working in offices right down the block.

The night Gore decided, in a session that went until midnight with Coelho, Eskew, chief of staff Charles Burson and Tipper, he quoted the Old Testament story of Gideon, from Chapter 7 of Judges. In it, General Gideon gathers his troops to be on the march. He leads them to a lake and tells them to drink. Some of the troops put their face in the water and gulp; others cup their hands and drink. The general, acting on God's command, tells those who gulped to return home, those who cupped their hands to follow him. Why? Because those who cupped their hands were taking just what they needed, a sign they were there out of commitment. And in a meeting with his staff the next morning, he drew on the work of a Scottish mountain climber, W.H. Murray: "Until one is committed, there is hesitancy...the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too." Tearful campaign workers lined the walls a few moments later as Gore announced to reporters: "It's a new campaign now."

And after ruling out the morgue, Coelho sent the real estate agents to find Gore's troops new digs in Nashville--this time at a rehabilitation clinic called the Sundance Center. And Sundance just happened to be Gore's Secret Service code name.

JUST SAY NO (SORT OF)

Sam Attlesey of the Dallas Morning News is a craggy, lanky Texan who wears Wranglers and cowboy boots and patterned shirts with open necks. With the help of a colleague, Attlesey had come up with a question for Bush about his possible past drug use that would force the Governor to abandon his stock reply: that when he was young and irresponsible, he was young and irresponsible, and he would not catalog his past indiscretions.

Traveling with Bush as he campaigned in Louisiana, Attlesey sidled up to the Governor after a press conference at a school in Metairie and asked him if he could clear the FBI background check administered to prospective employees. The standard questionnaire asks applicants if they have used illegal drugs in the previous seven years. Bush hemmed and hawed, giving Attlesey a non-answer, before slipping away to his hotel suite. But the Governor stewed about the question. A little later, Mark McKinnon, Bush's media director, called Attlesey in the hotel lobby and asked if he could take a copy of the FBI background check to the Governor. Attlesey agreed. Thirty minutes later, Bush called. Yes, the Governor said, he could clear the background check.

What Bush didn't realize was that he'd just started sliding down the slippery slope. The next morning's Dallas Morning News headline--BUSH DENIES USING DRUGS IN PAST 7 YEARS--sent the press into a frenzy at a time when Karen Hughes, Bush's longtime spokeswoman, had dropped off the road. (This left McKinnon in charge. "It was like jumping out of a plane without a parachute," he later recalled. Hughes would rarely leave Bush's side again for the rest of the campaign.) It would take 48 hours of revisions before Bush and his team would give their final answer: that he could have cleared the check as far back as 1974, seven years prior to the year his father became Vice President. The statement never admitted, of course, that he had ever done drugs.

Straightening out the controversy was hard because so few people knew where the bottom really was--knew if, when or what kind of drugs Bush had ever used. There were some senior-staff discussions about getting out the truth, whatever that was, but no one inside the Iron Triangle of strategist Rove, spokeswoman Hughes and campaign manager Joe Allbaugh agreed with that strategy. Bush had made it clear that he wasn't going to go down the road of admitting anything. "We're not going to do it," Rove told a Washington Republican. "Everyone's going to have to live with that."

Rove also assured jittery Republicans that the truth was not nearly as bad as they feared. Bush had never used cocaine, Rove told them. He might have been in a room a few times where cocaine was present. And he might have tried some other, less serious things. Though Rove wouldn't specify what "things," some people came away from those conversations believing the Governor must have at least smoked pot a few times.

"I'm going to tell people I made mistakes and that I have learned from my mistakes," Bush said. "And if they like it, I hope they give me a chance. And if they don't like it, they can go find somebody else to vote for." And with that, the week of agony ended just as suddenly as it had begun. Reporters ran out of leads and into something else: a public that resented journalists for probing politicians' past. Americans were burned out on scandal. Call it Bill Clinton's gift to George W. Bush.

WOLF PACKS IT IN

Gore's secret consultant, the one no one would talk about, wanted to fight back. Just a few days before, TIME had reported that the Gore campaign was paying gender theorist Naomi Wolf $15,000 a month to provide the Vice President with everything from wardrobe tips to big-picture theories of the race--specifically, that Gore must challenge Clinton if he was to become the "alpha male" in the presidential contest. The revelation that the Vice President harbored a feminism expert on his staff gave the late-night joke writers a month of material and sent the Gore operation into a deep, dark funk.

In part because she enjoyed the support of Gore's eldest daughter Karenna Schiff, Wolf sat in on strategy meetings, looked at speeches and ad copy, reviewed scripts and attended primary-debate preps. It was Wolf's idea to have Tipper keep talking about how sexy Gore was. It was Wolf's idea to encourage Gore, who was angry with Clinton anyway, to distance himself from the President.

Karenna thought the whole thing was just so right, said a consultant, who added that he and his colleagues would attend meetings with Wolf and Karenna and just "roll their eyes" at the pair's ideas. One even took Wolf to lunch just to see how many academic buzzwords she could drop. Eskew, at least, felt she understood women voters. But he was pretty much alone. "The whole family," said a longtime Gore retainer, "their instincts are, to a person, wrong, just bad." But what could they say to the Veep? Fire your daughter? "I don't think so," he added. Besides, to some Gore seemed infatuated with Wolf. Even Coelho, who thought Wolf was silly, couldn't shut it down. What worried him and others was that the 37-year-old author had written that adolescents should practice mutual masturbation rather than rush into sexual intercourse.

When the TIME story broke, Wolf, who thought she was being vilified, wanted a chance to explain everything, to go on the Sunday-morning talk shows and defend herself and her ideas. The Saturday before, Coelho vetoed the idea; sorry, he told her, the less said about you the better. But Wolf didn't listen; she appealed to Karenna for a second hearing with the Veep himself. And so Al, Tipper, Karenna and the secret consultant all conferred. Wolf said she deserved a chance to explain herself. And Gore said O.K.

Campaign aides would have found out Sunday morning as they choked on their croissants, except that the wake-up calls came much earlier, and repeatedly, as TV producers from other networks starting calling around and demanding to know why Wolf was appearing on ABC's This Week and not on all the networks. From Coelho on down, people were furious. Karenna would later apologize, searching out some aides with multiple calls to various places, and claim she hadn't meant to buck the system.

"WE HAVE TO GET IN HIS FACE"

"I got my ass kicked," Bush told a friend over the phone the day John McCain beat him by 19 points in New Hampshire.

This wasn't supposed to happen. Having lots of money is great, but only if it buys what you need, which in Bush's case was a tractor trailer big enough to ferry his entire party, from Clinton-hating conservatives to freedom-loving libertarians and everyone in between. But no sooner was the shiny new rig bought and paid for than Bush drove it straight into a snowbank called New Hampshire. Bush and Rove had been watching Steve Forbes closely, with his huge war chest and his flat-tax plan, worrying about a sideswipe from the right. But real terror is what you don't see coming, and it was the Straight Talk Express bus with McCain at the wheel and all those swooning reporters on board and his message of reform and renewal that upended the Bush campaign.

Some advisers, watching the McCain surge, urged Bush to do as his old man had done 12 years before--hit the enemy hard on the airwaves during that last weekend before voting. But Bush refused. "Our object is to win a nomination that is worth having," said Rove. And so Bush pretty much phoned it in--and got run over. "What the hell happened?" Bush asked his aides, who had not seen it coming--nothing remotely this bad or this big.

And so the Bush team headed down to South Carolina for the next big contest, where the crown that was supposed to be all bought and paid for was suddenly up for grabs. Bush had been up 47 points in South Carolina at one time; the polls were now even. McCain's crowds were huge. Working a rope line in Sumpter, Bush was approached by a man who stretched out his hand and said, "I just want to shake the hand of the next Vice President." Bush's face darkened; his eyes turned to slits.

Bush called old friends that weekend and chewed the thing over, secretly asked for help from outside advisers, handed out his private fax line so the campaign wouldn't know. "Tell me what you're seeing out there," Bush implored, trapped in his own bubble. But he had not given up hope. New Hampshire loves mavericks who live free or die, but the G.O.P. hates them, and the G.O.P. owned South Carolina.

In a suite at the Greenville Grand Hyatt that afternoon, Bush's top aides came together to save the campaign, but they were really plotting a murder. It was the Bush high command, with its South Carolina auxiliary: Rove; spokeswoman Hughes, as well as Warren Tompkins, a longtime G.O.P. operative in the state; state attorney general Charlie Condon; Lieutenant Governor Bob Peeler; and former Governor David Beasley. As a participant put it later, this was the moment "we decided to take the gloves off."

The trick was to try to cast McCain as a phony, take a guy with a consistently conservative voting record and paint him as a dangerous liberal, suggest that the war hero was somehow un-American, or at least un-South Carolinian. Out came the antipersonnel weapons: "He's not one of us," and "He doesn't share our conservative values," and "He's outside the mainstream." On McCain's lack of "conservative values," Rove piped up to say, "We have to get in his face on that. He's vulnerable." Added Tompkins: "He's an insider. When I hear this populist stuff, it makes me wanna throw up."

But who could put out the message, given Bush's promise to be a uniter, not a divider? Several outside groups, including the National Right to Life Coalition, Americans for Tax Reform and the National Rifle Association, stepped right up. "Right to Life will do radio; A.T.R. will do TV ads," said one of Bush's South Carolina advisers. Even though coordinating with third-party groups is illegal, the discussion explicitly revolved around the idea that these groups could be counted on to do whatever it took--whether it was running ads, passing out literature or making phone calls--to destroy McCain and save Bush.

Briefed later that day in his hotel suite, Bush agreed to the battle plan. The next 18 days would be the ugliest of his political career. In the heart of the Confederacy, phone callers and leaflets attacked McCain's wife's drug addiction, made racial attacks on McCain's adopted Bangladeshi daughter and warned of "McCain's fag army." Bush won the state by 11 points.

PAGING WAITRESS MOMS

For weeks Gore strategists Shrum and Tad Devine had been sounding out Stan Greenberg, the pollster with whom they had worked on Ehud Barak's race for Israeli Prime Minister and an old friend of Shrum's. Just about the time Commerce Secretary Bill Daley had replaced Coelho as campaign chairman, Devine called Greenberg and asked him if he would be willing to look at the race. Greenberg went out and did both polling and focus groups nationally. At the time, Gore was down 16 or 17 points, even in Greenberg's surveys, but the pollster thought he saw an opportunity.

Now they were ready to show his results to the boss. In late June, Greenberg set up his Power Point presentation--a laptop projecting onto a screen in Gore's dining room--and began sketching out a message with a more populist edge. Voters, he said, were ready to believe that Bush doesn't understand average people, that he is of a different background and more likely to give his well-to-do friends a break.

The type Greenberg projected onto the screen was tiny. Again and again, Gore got up from his chair and squinted at the stats. But he was getting more and more excited. Greenberg said it was time to pick a fight, which made sense to Gore. It was the kind of campaign in which he could be comfortable. And so the populist campaign was born.

Besides, Gore had just finished his three-week "Prosperity and Progress" tour to poor reviews by the media. The only big headlines he seemed to generate came when he criticized the oil companies over a recent spike in prices. In this atmosphere of paralysis, all the old infighting was back. Many in the campaign blamed the inertia on pollster Harrison Hickman, who had been brought in to replace Mark Penn. But Eskew, Shrum and Devine, the high-priced ad guys, weren't helping either: the $30 million of Democratic National Committee money they had spent on ads weren't budging Gore's poll numbers in any of the states that mattered.

The surest sign that there was blood in the water was the fact that all the exiled outsiders were hovering again. Penn was sending memos over the transom urging Gore to run on Clinton's economic success. The argument (one in which many thought they saw Clinton's hand) went like this: prosperity had not happened by chance; it took hard choices and courage; now we're seeing the benefits, but even the most glorious economy is fragile. Does the country really want to put that in Bush's hands? The key to the election, Penn argued, was not waitress moms but the "wired workers," a group that has benefited mightily from the Clinton years.

Shrum, Carter and Devine thanked Penn and read his memos, but didn't follow up. "That was not the route we were going down," a Gore strategist said.

Throughout the fall, most folks in the Clinton White House thought the populism jag was a huge mistake. Newly hired deputy campaign chairman Mark Fabiani--himself a refugee from Clinton's White House--was uncomfortable with the new tone. Fabiani warned that it still left the campaign without the thing it needed most: a one-sentence description of what was at stake in the race, something that had the power to counter Bush's attacks that Gore would say anything to get elected. He feared that the elitist media would hate this populist tone. And he argued that Gore should hit Bush's competence--does he have what it takes?--more directly. But he was overruled.

POOLSIDE WITH JEB

The Bush clan gathers every summer for fun and games in Kennebunkport, Maine, but this summer something special was up. The old man had invited everyone in his massive Rolodex to celebrate the Silver Fox's 75th birthday. It was all hush-hush, the old social secretaries and helpers and lickers and stampers, some of the old Bush gals and the hangers on, and of course folks like Jim Baker and his wife. They stayed all over the old fishing resort--at the point itself and at the Shawmut in town, and some bunked secretly with friends. And sure, they were coming to fete Barbara and all that she had created, but that's not what they came to see.

What they really wanted to know was how the man they still called Junior, the guy who for all those years George and Bar had fretted about, the one everyone thought wouldn't amount to much of anything, was conducting himself now that he was on the verge of taking back what his father had lost eight years before. Would he be wild and unsaddled, as always, smoking Marlboros in the dining room, Mr. Cock of the Walk, or would something else have settled in him, taken him to a different place? After all, he was going to be President soon, right?

There were the usual family high jinks: speedboating, bluefishing, tennis matches, horseshoes--let the games begin!--people riding around the Point on those fat-tired old bikes. The kids put on some hysterical skits one night at the Kennebunk River Club down the road. The old man dressed up as Carnac the Magician, and he and his sidekick Marlin Fitzwater reprised their favorite routines. Dubya's old friend Brad Freeman dressed up in a white wig and a dowdy blue dress and pretended to be Barbara. George's younger brother Marvin made fun of everyone, but the old ringleader himself, the guy who normally hammed it up the most, well, he just couldn't be found.

Bush kept to himself, stayed on the phone, worked on his speech, practiced for the debates. Everyone was whispering about it; some couldn't quite believe it; but everyone was a little relieved, a little proud; and everyone knew the real score. "He couldn't act out too much," said someone who was there. "His mom would have killed him."

The eldest Bush son couldn't resist at least one gag. Neil Bush, the former President's sweetest son by far, is also the most naive about politics. Neil was the one who got badly tangled up with some crooked Colorado bankers 10 years ago and never knew what hit him. One afternoon, out by the pool, Dubya and Jeb walked out, saw Neil and began talking loudly about a long list of crazy, outrageous things that just had to be in the convention speech. Pile 'em on, said Dubya. Let's do it, said Jeb, both men pretending to sound like political terrorists rather than the caretakers of a party and its future.

Listening to his big brothers, the Governors of two of the four largest states, Neil looked alarmed and warned, "Guys, you can't say that stuff. You just can't."

The two Governors just looked at their brother and smiled.

TAMING THE MERCENARIES

By July, all the wiring inside Goreland had become tangled. The White House believed the Gore campaign was run by amateurs. The New Democrats felt the campaign was drifting to the left. The Gore family had its doubts about all the consultants; Gore was on his third pollster, and the campaign had changed management three times. All the exiles seemed to be leaking their side of the story to reporters. The whole thing was driving Daley, Gore's new campaign chairman, crazy.

Every day a new story appeared about the various names on Gore's short list of vice-presidential candidates. Many in the campaign suspected Shrum and Devine of waging a campaign for another client of theirs, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina. A campaign official says they had even made a deal with one of the networks to provide "B roll" (pretty footage of their man) if Edwards were selected. Many staff members saved their sharpest blades for Shrum, who never moved to Nashville, who had little history with the candidate and who seemed to be always keeping an eye out for himself.

Daley tried to bridge the gap and put his foot down about all the leaks. He also invited back the old Gore hands that Coelho had banished--such as Ron Klain and Monica Dixon--and sent them to Nashville. He put another old Gore hand, Greg Simon, on the plane as the designated grownup. But Daley's rule was this: You have to give up your day jobs, all your other entanglements, for the duration. Simon came on unpaid--and brought his own cell phone to save even that expense.

GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN

There was never any question what kind of speech bush was going to give at the Republican Convention in Philadelphia: the Democratic kind. He had ridden into town after a bus trip modeled on the one Clinton made in 1992. He seemed to use the "rainbow coalition" as his model for the stage show; for the first time in a decade, the G.O.P. message was tolerance. The whole thing felt like a carefully buttoned-down love-in.

The only question--and it worried the folks in Austin--was this: Would the Republican delegates clap for it?

That's because G.O.P. delegates were dedicated carnivores who loved the red meat of their party's most militant wing and swooned at language against affirmative action and abortion and for cutting taxes and spending. They loved the name Reagan and had always been suspicious of the name Bush. And now along came his son, and no one knew how it would all go over.

But by the time Bush arrived, he had been giving his speech, or a version close to it, for weeks. Mike Gerson, his speechwriter, had been pounding out draft after draft, delivering the first one almost two months ahead of time. Bush kept tweaking it and changing it. He turned one paragraph over to spokeswoman Hughes, a former Texas TV personality, telling her to improve it: "This is your moment. This is your moment." She would fiddle with it and pass it back, and he would do the same and return it, telling her to keep working: "This is your moment." After a while, Hughes got fed up and said, "It's getting to be a pretty long moment, Governor."

By the end, the speech was a soup, as everyone from policy chief John Bolten to media guru McKinnon had tossed in carrots and onions and seasonings. While working out at the pool, Rove came up with some one-liners--"If my opponent had been there at the moon launch, it would have been a 'risky rocket scheme.'" But it was Bush who wrote the ending portraying himself as the kind of optimist who lives on the sunrise side of the mountain.

Just a few hours before he was to speak, Bush was alone in his hotel suite. His family, friends and most of his aides and advisers had gone ahead to the convention hall. But McKinnon hadn't left the hotel and went to see the Governor. McKinnon found Bush in a surprisingly serene state of mind. He could tell from the Governor's demeanor that he wasn't in the mood for chatting. So McKinnon just kept Bush company as he ate a little dinner and then got dressed. "The Governor has this capacity to get into the zone when he has to," McKinnon says. Bush struggled with his cuff links but otherwise did not appear nervous.

After leaving the suite, Bush and McKinnon got into the sedan that would take them to the convention hall. McKinnon could tell Bush still didn't want to talk. So they just sat there quietly, and Bush occasionally glanced at a copy of his speech. As they whizzed down the highway, McKinnon realized the Governor had started humming. At first McKinnon couldn't make out the song. Then he recognized it. It was Go Tell It on the Mountain.

THE CHOICE. THE KISS. THE BUMP

Al Gore had a choice to make. He could pick Joe Lieberman, old friend, moderate Democrat and Orthodox Jew, to be his running mate. Or he could go with his consultants' top pick, a guy who had once put some of them on his payroll: John Edwards, 47, a trial lawyer and first-term Senator from North Carolina. North vs. South. Experience vs. youth. Episcopalian vs. Jew.

It was easy to see that the room on the 10th floor of the Loews Vanderbilt Plaza Hotel in Nashville was split in two. Some of Gore's most important advisers, including Devine and Shrum, strongly favored Edwards, who they believed would lend youth, star quality and fund-raising appeal to the ticket. But the consultants found themselves outmaneuvered by a compact man who often used few words to make his points. Tonight, however, with 10 days to go before the Democratic Convention, former Secretary of State Warren Christopher was anything but silent. He had already met privately that morning with Gore and Frank Hunger for nearly two hours. But it was 10:30 p.m. now, and even in front of the group that included Daley, Eskew, Brazile, Shrum, Devine, Fabiani and Tipper, Christopher was in no mood to be diplomatic.

You cannot pick a one-term Senator from North Carolina, he said to Gore. He is not ready to be President, and that is, in theory at least, what Vice Presidents are for. "This choice says everything about you--what's in your heart, what's in your soul, what's in your mind." It was one of those rare moments when the consultants who had been running the show for months discovered they didn't hold the strongest cards.

Gore didn't say much in that meeting, but he did say that religion worked in Lieberman's favor. Gore said he didn't see a lot of evidence of anti-Semitism in the country; what he saw was "fear of anti-Semitism." But that wasn't enough to disqualify anyone, especially Lieberman. As for Edwards, a multimillionaire who had won his campaign by spending $6 million, Gore said only, "I think for $6 million, a lot of people could be a good politician."

Gore had probably made up his mind earlier in the day but wanted to hear the arguments one more time. The session was so exhausting that some staff members drifted off into another room and drained the minibar. After midnight, Gore put out the word to a few key allies in organized labor, like John Sweeney of the AFL-CIO. Lieberman went to bed wistful and tired, telling a longtime aide, "It looks like it didn't go our way." Lieberman found out differently the next morning when Gore called to make a formal offer.

By the time Gore got to Los Angeles for his convention, he knew he couldn't win a race about personality but might win one about issues. So when he told his team that he wanted to get very specific in his speech, team members decided Gore needed to be Gore and leave the leavening to others. They agreed that Gore should avoid talking about himself and stick to personal stories about real Americans and substitute his lack of appeal for an appeal to the voters he wanted to fight for. Then they could bracket his speech with video testimonials from others about what a good guy he was.

Determined to write it himself, Gore kept his speech short, which meant it was only four times as long as necessary when he finished his first draft. Eskew, Shrum and speechwriter Eli Attie had been meeting with him in hotel rooms around the country for weeks to start hacking away at the forest, grove by grove. They nudged him on tone and urged him to lose the preachy, kindergarten teacher's condescension. They told him to "surf the applause," that is, talk over the roars of the crowd when they came. (Later an aide bragged, "It sounded weird in the room, but it worked on TV.") Karenna read it over, and daughter Kristen added some mirth. But it was Sarah, the Gores' quieter, more reclusive child, who turned out to be the real editor, urging her father to cut and tighten.

Gore got to the Staples Center 15 minutes early, a ball of nervous energy. He embraced his college roommate Tommy Lee Jones, and the two men took their own quiet turn around backstage together, winding up at the side portal from which Gore was meant to make his entrance. The Secret Service had hung a blue curtain blocking the crowd's view through that doorway, but there was a gap at the top, and Gore could just make out his wife on the Jumbotron. Tipper was talking about her father-in-law Al Sr., and his kindly face appeared on the giant screen one more time. Then came the pictures of the couple's four children, of his wife, the whole gauzy Christmas card. Eskew saw the emotion in Gore's eyes as he watched those pictures. "I could see he was overcome," Eskew says. And so when she called his name, Gore marched out into the crowd, fought his way to the stage, and then Al Gore did something hardly anyone in America had ever seen him do: commit a spontaneously emotional act. He grabbed his wife, kissed her carefully, and then something overcame him and he wrapped his arms around her even tighter and gave her the most fervent kiss any politician has ever planted on a wife in public--a big, face-sucking whopper that caught Tipper off guard, silenced the pundits for a good five seconds and sent the hall into a kind of superheated frenzy. The speech was good, but a week later, it was the kiss that people were still talking about, particularly men, who saw in Gore either something they had never expected or something in themselves, or both.

EASELS AND CANDYGRAMS

The sun was barely up, but W. was, on the phone with Rove at home in the middle of Black September. "I don't want people to get down," Bush told Rove, which basically meant, Don't let the team read the papers, watch the news or get anywhere near a pollster. "I want them to stay focused and not let current events get to their thinking." Bush hooked up with campaign chairman Don Evans in St. Louis and talked about how important it was to keep spirits up. Bush wanted his old friends to keep confidence high. "We talked about how important it was that I project high spirits around here," Evans recalled.

For Bush, September was the cruelest month. A week after the Democratic Convention, Labor Day, the day everyone is supposed to actually sit up and pay attention to politics, Bush was caught on an open mike calling a New York Times reporter a "major-league asshole." The Governor then admitted that he hadn't explained his tax plan correctly, raising questions about whether he knew what was in it at all. Vanity Fair argued that the candidate was dyslexic, which some of his performances only seemed to confirm. He was running ads suggesting that Gore was scared to debate him, which confirmed the sense that the reverse was true. A front-page New York Times story detailed the subliminal use of rats followed by the phrase BUREAUCRATS DECIDE in a Bush campaign advertisement. "If I had to write a book about this campaign," said Hughes, "it would be called Of Rats, Assholes and Dyslexia."

To sharpen their message, chief strategist Rove formed the McKinnon Commission to come up with a packaged policy that was not new in substance but had a buffed-up look to it, including sepia-toned briefing books. "Blueprint for the Middle Class," for instance, was just a 10-page document done in the style of actual blueprints that outlined how the Bush plan would support the family from cradle to grave. There was nothing subtle about it: on nearly every page was a picture of a woman, each one from a different walk of life, state, demographic subgroup. It looked like an advertising campaign for a new kind of Volvo or cellular phone. Bush's travel was coordinated that week to reach Midwestern swing-state women, just as it was later when "Agenda for the Greatest Generation" wrapped the candidate's senior-friendly message in a briefing book with pictures of V-day celebrations, all delivered to key states like Florida and Pennsylvania that have a high percentage of elderly voters. The commission also wanted Bush to lay out a "First 100 Days" agenda in Pittsburgh, Pa., but that was shot down by the candidate himself. It would look arrogant, he said, as if he had already locked up the election.

Gore, meanwhile, was starting to poke holes in his own ship. In the third week of September, reporters began to challenge him on some of the anecdotes he related in his speeches, including whether the prescription drug Lodine did cost less for his dog than for his mother-in-law. Gore's sudden drift may not have been entirely coincidental. Republican message sculptor Ed Gillespie arrived in Austin to step up the attacks on the Vice President. Constantly outgunned by Gore's better tactical operation, Bush's team started working on what it called "stink bombs," or what later became known as "candygrams"--tactical strikes on Gore's veracity that it hoped would knock their opponent off stride. The bomb throwers were in place, ready to go when the debates began.

THE SECRET DEBATE STRATEGY

Karl Rove's cell phone was ringing, and he could see it was Don Evans calling. "Where are you?" Evans asked, sounding angry. It was nearly 9 p.m. on a Friday, which left exactly four days to go before the first debate, and something had gone wrong. Rove was driving to a nearby Austin church with New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg. Gregg had been playing Gore in debate-practice sessions for months. He and Evans were joining Bush for a run-through designed as a kind of conditioning exercise: they had to get the Governor used to performing at a late hour, given his usual 9:30 bedtime.

"I'm way ahead of you, Don," Rove told Evans with his usual bubbliness. He knew Bush hated being late, and so had hustled everyone out of dinner and into the cars for what was supposed to be a quick ride to the church.

"No, Karl," came Evans' curt reply. "We're already here."

Whoops. Rove realized he had the wrong church. He pulled a U-turn in the middle of the highway, but by the time they finally made it to the right church, steam was coming out of Bush's ears. "He's not a man who hides his emotions," said someone who was in the room. "He was pissed." They started practice 40 minutes behind schedule, and by the time it was over, they wished they hadn't started at all. Bush had bungled and fumbled his way through the 90 minutes. "It was not a crackerjack performance," said a senior aide.

It was not all that surprising that Rove got lost. By then Bush had practiced in so many secret places that it was easy to forget which venue might be on the schedule. Back in the spring, his staff members had rented a small auditorium at the Texas State Bar Association building in Austin. The site was perfect: it was relatively new, was close to Bush's office in the State Capitol and had a small back entrance that made it easy for Bush to slip in and out. But then a Democratic member of the bar group objected, and the state association evicted the campaign. Next the campaign rented a sound stage. They also practiced in churches; they practiced in Kennebunkport; and later they just repaired to Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas. Often Bush's staff, led by media aide Stuart Stevens, turned up to fire questions at the Governor. So all through September, when Bush seemed to be trying to dodge the debates, he was actually practicing for them somewhere, under the guise of what were called "communications meetings" on all the internal campaign schedules. Gore read the Texan's surprisingly light schedule and immediately realized what was going on. "No one has that much down time," Gore told his aides wryly. And his instincts were right; by the time Bush walked across the stage in Boston, he and his aides had been preparing for five months.

"I THOUGHT HE WAS GOING TO HIT GEORGE"

Bush stalled about debates for weeks in August and September so that by the time his negotiating team turned up in Washington to hammer out the details of a fall schedule, they had little choice but to concede on dates, times, cities and length of debates. Then the two sides got down to the details. It took six days to produce a 50-page legal agreement governing lights, sets, timing, logistics, order of arrival, order of departure and order of speaking--even the kinds of pencils and notepads that would be available onstage.

Each side played the usual psych-war games in these talks: Gore's team said he wanted lapel mikes for the first debate (that was designed to fool Bush into thinking Gore was going to walk around); Bush wanted swivel chairs for the second debate (to make him look as tall as the Vice President). And for the third debate, the two sides spent a lot of time discussing rules of movement and space in ways that would have made an air-traffic controller proud, including arguments about privacy areas, zones of separation and what constituted interference. "The Bush people seemed constantly concerned that Gore was going to move," someone involved in the talks said later. "They seemed spooked by Gore's size." At one point, the two sides discussed a warning light that would fire if one candidate violated another's space. In the end, all that was scrapped for a large no-man's-land and a tiny zone of privacy around each man's chair. In retrospect, Bush might have wished for a fence. During the third debate, Gore ranged so widely over the stage--and at one point came so close to Bush--that after it was over, Barbara Bush quipped, "I thought he was going to hit George."

Indeed, it is a wonder that Gore, the self-proclaimed master of preparation, did not practice until the final week--or give more thought to how things might look. He spent three days in Sarasota, Fla., at the Mote Marine Laboratory with a prep team of about 15. The sessions were crunchy: figuring out the issues, tightening Gore's answers into the two-minute, one-minute time limits. But for all the questions they thought out, there was no discussion of stagecraft. And Gore, of all people, should have known the importance of the little things.

He arrived late at the University of Massachusetts in Boston and didn't have time for a check under the lights, an ironic mistake for a man who had written his college thesis on the power of television and the presidency. Gore's makeup artist did not allow for his Florida tan. And with only a few minutes to spare before going on, Gore was told something new: the pool camera might "cut away" to him during Bush's responses. That meant Gore had to be careful about how he looked when he wasn't talking--even though he hadn't prepared that way.

Gore entered the stage with his face painted orange. He sighed while Bush gave his answers. The repeated interruptions of Bush and moderator Jim Lehrer astonished Evans, who was sitting right behind Lehrer. "I couldn't believe it," he said. "I looked at him [Bush] and said, 'My friend is going to be the President of the U.S.'"

By the second debate, Gore was so conscious of the need to back off that he practically disappeared, and it confused people about who he really was. The last debate was Gore's best, but by then it was almost too late. Bush prepared for the last debate by praying with James Robison, a television evangelist, for "calm, confidence and the wisdom to know when to speak and when not to speak." And then he went fishing.

THE FLORIDA GAMBIT

Bush's war planners held no single article of faith more dearly than this: the Governor started the general-election campaign with two huge states, worth 57 electoral votes: Texas and Florida. Together they were worth more than California, the top Gore stronghold. Jeb Bush was Florida's Governor, and Bush's father had held the Sunshine State against Clinton in 1992. Florida was, they assumed, Bush Country.

Gore thought so too, at least at first. Gore's team figured it would take at least $10 million to win it back--a big chunk of change best held in reserve for elsewhere. And so Gore's early attentions to the state were just head fakes, designed to scare Bush into wasting some money there. But then the polling came in. "What we found when we got here a year and half ago was that we just polled better here," said Chris Lehane. "If we were down 15 nationally, Florida was down only 9. After the primaries, we were down in the rest by 8, but here by 4," says Lehane. "I think we thought that would change, that Bush would spend some money and we'd see a turn in the numbers. But we didn't."

The more Gore's aides looked at Florida, the more it looked like, say, New Jersey. The demographics had shifted in the 1990s with more non-Cuban Caribbean immigrants coming into the state. These groups balanced the Cuban-American tendency to lean toward the G.O.P. Seniors made up 33% of the vote--which made them ripe for persuasion on prescription drugs, Medicare and Social Security. The Everglades and an offshore oil-drilling ban loomed as environmental issues. And there was a huge swath of apolitical voters in the central part of the state who worked in the hotels and restaurants and service industries that straddled Interstate 4. They voted Republican in statewide races, but tilted Democratic on national issues.

Someone else was scraping for a fight over Florida: Bill Clinton. In one of his earliest bull sessions with Coelho, Clinton ranted about how he still regretted allowing his political advisers to talk him out of contesting Florida in that first race, how he came so close to winning in 1992 and proved them all wrong by taking the state in 1996. "He felt that Florida was a state he could do," Coelho recalled. "He said, 'Don't make the mistake I made.'"

Last summer Coelho contacted the virulently anti-Castro Mas Canosa family and discovered that the Cuban-American community was not completely locked up by the G.O.P. Gore had other advantages: the state attorney general, Bob Butterworth, took control of Gore's statewide operation. Devine and Shrum were close to Miami's mayor, Joe Carollo, and they were simultaneously working on Bill Nelson's Senate race, which showed Floridians' giving a 20-point edge to a Democrat--any Democrat--on the question of whom they trusted to take better care of Medicare and Social Security.

The ad war began early, in June in Tampa, Orlando and West Palm Beach. When those ads boosted Gore's ratings for leadership and strength of character, Team Gore expanded the buy statewide. And no single ad turned out to be as important to narrowing the gap than the one that accused Bush of promising "the same money to young workers and seniors." That 30-second spot alone boosted Gore's rating by 10 points among senior citizens--and by Nov. 1, he was running neck and neck in the Sunshine State.

"ARROGANT IS NOT A DISQUALIFIER"

At 8:15 one morning in Nashville, during the final week, the Gore campaign's high command gathered in the large, soul-free room they call "the kitchen." It looked like a corporate cave, furnished out of Office Depot, with a huge table and more computers, telephones and ugly chairs scattered around it than you could count. The group was connected to the D.N.C. by conference call, preparing for a day that would launch the last big drive of the campaign. It was a 15-minute daily ritual, although it had become more infrequent in the final days of the campaign.

Gore was to appear that day in Wisconsin--a state in which he was ahead but only narrowly. Klain, the former Gore chief of staff who had been brought back by chairman Daley to run the kitchen, explained the schedule: the Vice President would give a "big framing speech to set up the final week... We're also talking about today, for the first time in a big way, the fork in the road."

The campaign had other gambits planned too, and the group went over them as seven television screens played silently in the background. The D.N.C.'s Laura Quinn explained how megamystery writer Stephen King had recorded radio spots in which he had intoned, "I know what you did in Texas." Actresses Neve Campbell and Kathy Bates were thinking about doing spots too. Klain asked about getting Jamie Lee Curtis signed up.

"We tried," said Quinn.

"Too bad," said Klain.

He turned to David Ginsberg, head of research: "David, the bad guys?"

Bush would be in New Mexico, Ginsberg said, on his way to California, which instantly became the big mystery in Goreland that day. Why was Bush going there when Florida was, in the words of spokesman Doug Hattaway, "the big kahuna, and we're ahead"?

The major question of the week was "What do we push on the negative track?" As Klain put it, How hard should questions be pressed about Bush's fitness for office? Who should ask them? (Gore, everyone agreed, couldn't.) Where to ask them? They had tested nine possible ads over the weekend. By Monday they were down to five. The spots ranged in tone from reassurances about Gore's leadership qualities to frontal attacks on Bush's competence. They would eventually choose the bluntest approach--a direct assault on the question of whether Bush was "ready to lead America."

Greenberg's polls showed the attack had promise. In a memo to the campaign high command, he wrote, "The balance of forces tilts toward us." But he had felt compelled to add, "imperceptibly so." Forty-four percent of voters thought Bush was "in over his head." But Greenberg admitted that Gore's negatives were higher. People thought he was arrogant and neither honest nor trustworthy. Still, he said, "arrogant is not a disqualifier."

DON'T STOP THINKING ABOUT TOMORROW

On his last stop of the last day before returning to Texas, Bush flew into Bentonville, in the northwest corner of Arkansas. Nearly 5,000 people--a huge number for that part of the state--were jammed into an airport hanger for the rally. The crowd roared as Bush and Laura emerged from their plane and waved. On the tarmac, the normally taciturn campaign chairman, Don Evans, was so juiced by the moment that he ran to the crowd, his arms raised high, both hands making the W sign and then proceeded to work the line, grabbing hands as if he were the candidate.

Ever since he got into the race 16 months before, Bush had always sworn he was not out for revenge. This wasn't about his father's loss in 1992, he claimed. It wasn't about his father at all; it was, he said, about the future. But no matter what Bush said, no matter how hard his aides argued the point, the motivating force behind the campaign was always apparent. Sure, Bush was his own man, not just the son out to avenge the father. But what really gave his campaign energy, what fueled the passion in the crowds that came out to see him, was the desire to expunge the memory of Bill Clinton's victory--a victory seen as illegitimate by hard-core Republicans--and of the eight years that followed.

Now, as Bush made his way to the stage, it was time for the music that marks the candidate's arrival. Mark McKinnon, Bush's media guru, sidled up to a reporter and said, "Listen to this." Instead of the usual song, a Van Halen number, the speakers in the hanger exploded with the sound of a different tune: Fleetwood Mac's Don't Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow). Reporters started laughing when they heard it. Such a clever move, they said to each other, to play Clinton's campaign theme song at a Bush rally. In Arkansas! But suddenly, with the ear-ripping screech of a needle being dragged across an old record album, the song stopped. And then a new song blared from the speakers. The crowd erupted in cheers as the lyrics of the classic rock song by the Who reverberated through the hanger: Won't Get Fooled Again.

Back aboard the plane for the flight to Austin, Bush did something he hadn't done in a long time: he came back to talk to the reporters. He went from row to row, shaking hands. He was far more sober and serious than the candidate they usually saw on the plane. Perhaps he realized that a man who might be elected President could no longer play the fraternity cutup. Or perhaps he was just tired. But he had one joke still in him. As he made his way back to the front of the plane, he turned to the first few rows of journalists. "All right," he said, frowning a bit, then running his hand through his hair as he savored the famous line by Richard Nixon that he was about to deliver. "You won't have me to kick around anymore." He smiled and gave a short laugh. Then he turned around and walked up the aisle.

--Reported by James Carney and John F. Dickerson with Bush and Tamala M. Edwards and Karen Tumulty with Gore


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Cover Date: November 20, 2000

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