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Crossfire

Will Florida's Courts Have the Final Say in the Presidential Election?

Aired December 7, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

MARY MATALIN, CO-HOST: Tonight, let the deliberations begin. In Florida, it's in the judge's hands as three different court cases wrap. When the verdicts come in, will we have a new president?

ANNOUNCER: Live, from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press. On the right, Mary Matalin. In the CROSSFIRE, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois a Gore supporter and Assistant Senate Majority Leader Don Nickles from Oklahoma, a Bush supporter.

MATALIN: Good evening and welcome to CROSSFIRE. The Florida courts are working practically around-the-clock to beat the clock. Next Tuesday marks the legal deadline for insuring the legitimacy of Florida's 25 electors and all sides are racing to meet it. Late into last night and all day today lawyers loped from county courts to the Supreme Court. Will those cases finally bring closure to campaign 2000? Will Gore challenge the December 12th? Will Democratic unity hold if he does? We'll tackle those questions with our distinguished senators after an up-to-the-minute report from ground zero.

Martin Savidge in Tallahassee. Clear it up for us, Martin.

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good evening to you, Mary. I'll do my best. Let me hit the headlines for you. Oral arguments heard today in the appeals case of Vice President Al Gore before the Florida Supreme Court. Essentially, the Democrats are trying to get overturned a lower court's decision denying the recount of some 14,000 ballots from Miami-Dade and Palm Beach Counties -- Ballots that the Democrats believe could hold the key in overturning the election in favor of the vice president.

The Democrats believe that these ballots were never properly counted. That's what they're arguing. The Republicans are countering, though, that the lower court's decision to deny that manual recount was sound and they also say that those ballots have indeed been recounted and they also -- we have been told that the justices now have gone home for the evening. They will be back in session at least deliberating starting at 8:00 tomorrow morning.

Now the other two cases that were being heard today in Leon County Circuit Court. Both of them have to do with about 25,000 absentee ballots. These are ballots that came from Martin County and Seminole County. In both of those counties the Democrats are alleging that Republican election workers had improper access to what are referred to as absentee ballot request forms and as result the entire absentee ballot process from those two counties has been tainted.

The Republicans contend that there was nothing improper about writing in voter identification numbers because of misprint. However, the Democrats are saying that as a result of that it was unfair and all of those ballots -- 25,000 -- should now be thrown out. Most of those ballots, of course, went in favor of George W. Bush. If you throw those ballots out, suddenly a dramatic turn of events in favor of the vice president. We are awaiting the verdicts in those cases. Perhaps one coming in at noon tomorrow. The other still hanging fire. Three cases, as you say, we are writing on tonight -- Mary.

MATALIN: Well, thank you, Martin. You're doing a great job down there. Now on with the show, with the politics beyond the legal issues. Sitting in for the spinning Bill Press is our word smith Jake Tapper, of Salon.com. Welcome back, Jake.

JAKE TAPPER, GUEST HOST: Thanks, Mary. Great to be.

MATALIN: Thank you.

TAPPER: Senator Nickles, if I may begin. As you know, as an avid Salon.com reader, I've spent a lot of time -- a lot of time in Tallahassee in the last month and I have to say that there are lot of very upset voters in the southeastern part of the state, a lot of them are elderly. They feel that the Republican Party has done everything it can to block the manual recount of their votes, while at the same time fighting tooth and nail the right to get every absentee ballot military ballot counted -- which I support, by the way. But what is your response? What is you message to those voters who feel that the Republican Party has done everything it can to disenfranchise them?

SEN. DON NICKLES (R), OKLAHOMA: Well, I don't think that's the case. I think you ought to count ballots that were cast, not cast ballots, and I'm afraid that in some cases when the election officials were holding up, saying, well, no. They don't punch through here, but we think it's indented therefore we're going to cast a vote.

They should count votes. They shouldn't cast votes. And it's really -- it's very unfortunate to see that happen and then it's very unfortunate to see the Gore team saying, well, wait a minute. Let's change the rules. Let's change the state law and then let's change the way they count. In one of the court cases they have today they said, well let's -- even though the canvassing is completed, well let's make them change the way did the canvassing. I think that's really wrong.

TAPPER: Well, it's interesting you bring up today because Republican attorney Terry Young in Seminole County today had a quote that sums up exactly how I feel about this. He said a ballot is not just a piece of paper, it is a voice and voice that at all costs should not be silenced. Amen.

That's how I feel. That's how I feel about the absentee ballots in Seminole County --the military absentee ballots. It's also ow I feel about the ballots in Miami-Dade County and in Broward County and in Palm Beach County. You know, in saying that you're interpreting or you're making up votes, that's not the law in Texas. The law in Texas is you are able to hand recount the votes I don't understand why the Republican Party has such a double standard.

NICKLES: Well, I don't think the Republican Party does. If there's a double standard it's the Gore team that says, well, wait a minute. Let's don't count military ballots. Let's don't count absentees that are legitimate. legal cast ballots...

TAPPER: I agree with. I agree with you. But why not count the other ones?

NICKLES: Well, I'm pointing the double standard. And the only thing I'm saying, in Miami-Dade and the other counties, count votes that were cast. They did that in those counties. Those machines counted them twice and then they had the manual recount.

But guess what? Nationwide, one or two percent of people don't vote for president. And I think it's like 1.8 percent in Miami-Dade. That happens. A lot of people don't vote. Maybe they don't want, whatever reason. But if they vote for a lot of different offices and then they didn't vote for president to have some election official say, well, I think they intended to vote when he didn't is a mistake. You ought to count all ballots that were cast, but they shouldn't be casting ballots or casting votes after Election Day.

MATALIN: Senator Durbin, as a veteran recounter from Illinois, our joint home state, I'd love to talk chads with you, but let's talk politics. The two favorite liberal editorial pages today had the following to say about Gore's reaction to the Leon County appeal, which Martin referenced

"The New York Times" said: "If the court rejects that appeal or takes other action that stops short of ordering further review of the ballots in question, the election will effectively be over and further wrangling will no longer be in the nation's interest. At that point, Mr. Gore should concede.

That's echoed in "The Washington Post," proud on the Potomac, Quote: "If Mr. Gore loses, he should quit." Where are you in the big count-off here?

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN (D), ILLINOIS: Mary, I think we're at most a matter of days, maybe even a matter of hours before this is over. I think we're in the red zone. At this point, I think the courts are going to make a decision in Tallahassee, and once that decision's made I don't think there'll be much left of this contest.

MATALIN: Well, Senator Lieberman in an effort to clear up remarks he made earlier that got all you all riled I think added to the confusion late today when he said precisely he would not answer the question if the Supreme Court ruled on the appeal before Seminole and Martin counties came in on the absentee ballot. He didn't say that they would get out when the Supreme Court ruled. In other words, they would hang on for these absentee ballots. Would that disrupt whatever unity exists now on the Hill for them? DURBIN: Well, I think there's strong unity behind the Gore effort and the Tallahassee Supreme Court making its decision. These other lawsuits, though, in Seminole County and Martin County are being followed by the Gore campaign. They're not being run by the Gore campaign, and the timing as to what the trial judge might decide when it's decided whether it'll be appealed is really out of their hands. It is critical, though, I'd hate to be in that judge's position to see so many thousands of ballots that were literally mishandled. Mary, if we tried to pull this off in Cook County they'd brought in a special prosecutor by midnight...

(CROSSTALK)

MATALIN: Tried to pull it off, Senator? This is business as usual.

DURBIN: I mean, but the Republican Party changed and added information, and they did it apparently with impunity from their point of view and I don't think anybody else will try to get away with that.

TAPPER: You know, I'm confused about something and Senator Nickles I've been looking forward to this all day because I was hoping that you could clear it up for me, and that is everything that you just said about Florida which I've been hearing, you know, for weeks and weeks and weeks, somehow in New Mexico the Republican Party has the exact opposite position because in New Mexico which Gore won by maybe just over 300 votes, the Republican Party there -- the Republican National Committeeman there, a guy named Mickey Barnett, is calling for a hand recount.

He said: "I just don't believe 700 people went to the polls and did not vote for president." That sounds a little familiar. From what you were just telling me about the 1 percent, 2 percent that don't vote for president, perhaps you should call Mickey Barnett in New Mexico.

I'm not sure what the area code is there, but how do you reconcile those two completely contradictory points of view? I know you don't think it's hypocrisy, so please explain it to me. I'm really confused.

NICKLES: If New Mexico wants to have a recount and they do it within statutory time tables fine. The point is what troubled me in Florida was that there was a time table by statute. It had to be done by a certain date and then the judges on the state Supreme Court said, well, oh no. We'll move that date. Now they've complied with that. County officials didn't want to do it in one precinct Miami-Dade.

They did it in Broward County and so on and now they're saying, well, wait a minute. We need to revise the law again. You can't keep changing the law. If in New Mexico if they had a recount and they had it within a certain period of time and they did it by statute, fine. I don't think, though I would want -- I would be very opposed if they came in and started casting votes in New Mexico. I would be very troubled if they said, oh, wait a minute. Well, we think this -- we're going to divine the intention of some voter here. That would brother me.

TAPPER: Well, in terms divining the intention, I assume by that you mean by having a hand recount, which is a...

(CROSSTALK)

NICKLES: No, no. You can have a hand recount, but when you starting saying, well, wait a minute. This is sort of dimpled, so we think maybe they intended to vote. That troubles me a lot. I think you need to count actual cast votes.

TAPPER: Let me just make it very clear. It's not just New Mexico talking about having this recount in New Mexico. It's a Republican National Committee (UNINTELLIGIBLE) named Mickey Barnett, who clearly is doing this on behalf of George W. Bush.

Now, are you saying that this is just some lone wolf out there in New Mexico, howling...

NICKLES: I don't know.

TAPPER: You have no idea?

NICKLES: You made the statement he's doing it on behalf of George Bush. I haven't heard that. And again, if they're within state statute and they do it by the time timetable, fine. That's not what they're doing in Florida.

Florida, they didn't. We have a certified winner in Florida, and it's Governor Bush. Governor Bush won the recount. He won the first election, he won the recount, and he complied with the new law that the Florida Supreme Court legislated, in my opinion incorrectly, and he still won. And yet Al Gore keeps going.

Al Gore reminds me of the Japanese who just wouldn't surrender, they didn't surrender until the 1970s. It just keeps going and going.

I hope he will listen to people like Dick Durbin and others, saying, wait a minute, this has run about long enough. There comes a point -- and I'll leave it to the Democrat friends and leaders, like Dick Durbin and others, hopefully be telling the vice president, you know, it's about time.

TAPPER: OK. Well, thank you very much.

Here's tonight's online audience vote question: Who has appeared more presidential in the past few weeks? Would that be Governor George W. Bush or Vice President Albert Gore? Just go to cnn.com/crossfire to vote, and we'll show the results later. And stay online and debate tonight's guest: Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois and Senator Don Nickles of Oklahoma. And when we come back, Senate power- sharing. And what exactly did Senator Nickles' boss say about Hillary and lightning striking? We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) TAPPER: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. On the Web, that Ryder truck that shuttled the ballots from Palm Beach County to Tallahassee is going, going, going for $36,700 as of right now. Coming in at a much more reasonable rate, I'm Jake Tapper, Washington correspondent for Salon.com, sitting in for the exemplary Bill Press.

And I'm fortunate to be sitting here chewing the fat about Florida with two esteemed senators: Assistant Majority Leader Don Nickles of Oklahoma, a Bush supporter, and assistant Democratic floor leader Dick Durbin of Illinois, a Gore man -- Mary.

MATALIN: Senator, let's chew some more fat on this absentee ballot. I was going to drop this until a man who's been motivated his entire career by fairness and justice -- that would be you -- held the view you did on absentee ballots.

DURBIN: Thank you very much.

MATALIN: Now, look, here's what Gore had to prove down there: gross negligence, fraud and intentional misconduct. Do you think a supervisor, county supervisor, who allowed a printer's error on an application to be corrected, is -- that is gross negligence, fraud or misconduct?

DURBIN: Mary, if I'd have suggested in any county in Illinois that you would take the applications for absentee ballots, call in the local Democratic Party to fill in the blanks, or maybe even remove them from the building and let the local Democratic Party fill in the blanks, everybody would have screamed bloody murder. That's exactly what happened in these two counties.

It really wasn't fair at all. It wasn't balanced. If there was an error in this application, for goodness sakes resolve the error at least with the employees of the office. They brought in Republican volunteers to do this.

MATALIN: Then that would be -- they would be complicit in helping the party. That was -- that was the only fair thing for her to do to let those -- let me go to the bigger question...

DURBIN: The fair thing to do? What about calling in the Democratic Party? Just call the Republicans.

NICKLES: But the Democrats -- this wouldn't get honorable mention in Cook County.

(LAUGHTER)

MATALIN: Yes, that's right. Quit using your own state as an example here.

DURBIN: You're talking about the old days.

NICKLES: The Democrats did a better job in printing these applications. The Republicans misprinted the applications, they fixed them. The point is the ballots were cast correctly. No one... (CROSSTALK)

No, these are applications. There were no Republicans messing with ballots. The ballots were cast, the ballots were accurate. And nobody contests that.

DURBIN: People might never have received a ballot except for the fact that the Republican Party was called in to fill in the blanks.

NICKLES: No, the fill in -- all they did was fill in voter IDs, and again...

DURBIN: That's all.

NICKLES: ... the Democrats, when they had their applications -- the Democrats printed the Democrat application. Republicans printed the Republican application. And the Democrats did it right. They had a line that said voter ID. The Republicans didn't. All they did was fill in voter ID.

All right. Maybe they shouldn't have done it. I don't know exactly. But the votes -- the ballots were all accurate and they shouldn't be thrown out.

MATALIN: OK. Can I go to my second part of the question, because it's the more relevant part? Even Nikki Clark, who I'm not calling partisan or anything, but her history is that she's a Democrat. She said today that the county supervisor, not -- it wasn't the voters who were in noncompliance. You also have to prove substantial noncompliance. It wasn't the voter. The voter did the right thing. This is not an intended vote, this is an imagined vote -- this is a real vote.

If anybody...

DURBIN: But Mary...

(CROSSTALK)

MATALIN: ... which means what's the remedy. You're going to punish the voters?

DURBIN: Mary, I don't know what the remedy is. That's the toughest part of this lawsuit as far as I'm concerned. But the Florida law is pretty clear.

Do you know who's allowed under Florida law to put information on that application? Not the Republican Party in the county where they reside, but frankly, it has to be the voter or a member of the family or someone who...

MATALIN: You have to answer the remedy question. Why are we raising this if the only remedy is to disenfranchise 25,000 voters?

DURBIN: And frankly, that may be -- that may be the reason that those court cases will go nowhere. I've sat and thought about this: What is the remedy? I'm not sure that I know what it is. But I know that something happened there which wouldn't have been allowed in any county across America, and somebody should be answering for it.

TAPPER: You know, speaking of remedies, one theory in Washington right now is that the ugly partisanship that has been in Washington is going to be cured, because the Senate is now split 50/50. The House is almost like that. George W. Bush, if he ends up in the White House, will have won by, you know, six votes or whatever.

And Senator Nickles, I have to commend to you, you've always been rather statesmanlike. You're never quoted as being one of these people who's made these crazy off-the-cuff comments about your fellow senator or people across the aisle.

Of course, you're not the only senator from your party in Washington, and your boss, Senator Trent Lott, the majority leader, said about Hillary Clinton the other day: "I tell you one thing, when this Hillary gets to the Senate, if she does -- maybe lightning will strike and she won't -- but she will be one of 100 and we won't let her forget it."

What is going on with that? Are you embarrassed by that kind of comment at all? That's not the kind of thing you would ever say, is it?

NICKLES: I don't think -- my guess is that was a mistaken comment. I don't know. I haven't heard that before you pulled it out, and I go, Whoo!

But you know, Hillary Clinton is a senator-elect, she'll be sworn in as senator on January 3rd. She will be one of 100. She -- right now, she has special status. She's the first lady of the United States and is receiving a great deal of media attention, and my guess is will continue to receive a great deal of media attention, at least for the first month or so.

But before that, I'm sure she wants to roll of her sleeves and go to work in the Senate. We'll accept her as a senator, both Democrat and Republican. She'll get her committee assignments, she'll do her homework. We'll work with her and she'll cast votes, and she'll have a vote that's just as equal as any other senator now serving.

TAPPER: You know, if you're not going to distance yourself too much from that comment, or a little bit you did, I'd like to show you something from Senator Lott that maybe you would like to dismiss, if we could go to that tape of Senator Trent Lott flying down to Crawford.

What is that outfit? What is going on? Where did he get that hat from: Shaft? And those jeans were painted on. It's a "Here comes the Wrangler, he's one tough customer," perhaps?

MATALIN: I don't think you are the -- the guy who is at party that dresses like Al Gore shouldn't say any -- have any sartorial comment. TAPPER: I just don't know what's going on. And you don't have to distance yourself. I understand you have to work with him tomorrow. But my stars! Somebody...

NICKLES: I think they just came off the ranch. And they were probably riding in...

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Woo!

MATALIN: Do you think you men are --- do too much commentary on your sartorial splendor -- or lack thereof? Is this the new thing: for men to be happening? See, I grew up with this. But look at that tie. You look fabulous.

DURBIN: I'm in trouble, right. No, well, frankly -- filings basement. You know, I really go the very top shelves.

TAPPER: If we're going after Katherine Harris, then we should go after Trent Lott also, right? Is that fair?

MATALIN: I like it. And that top button, that has got to go there, Jake. That's got to go. Well, thank very much. See, this is the new tone in Washington: everybody getting along.

DURBIN: It's "Cease-fire," not CROSSFIRE.

MATALIN: It's "Cease-fire." We're changing the tone here in Washington. And to prove it, you can sign on our cnn.com/crossfire and talk with -- or debate, if they so desire -- Senator Dick Durbin and Senator Don Nickles.

Jake Tapper and I will be right back with our closing comments. Stay with us on CROSSFIRE.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATALIN: Now, our online audience vote results. Earlier Jake asked you: Who has appeared more presidential in the past few weeks: Bush or Gore? What a surprise: 83 percent of you said Bush; 17 percent of you said -- boy, there you have it.

TAPPER: Yes.

MATALIN: And that's...

TAPPER: The most scientific poll that there is.

MATALIN: Do we need another -- OK, I say let the appeals go. But then end it. Now he wants to go to Seminole County, Martin County.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Those are not Gore suits. MATALIN: See, this is -- don't even -- don't try to spin a spinner, OK? The guy who brought that suit is a $100,000 donor to the Gore-Lieberman...

TAPPER: That does not mean that he is Al Gore or affiliated with the Gore campaign. It is not a Gore suit. That -- it's not a Gore lawyer.

MATALIN: All right. That's not my even question. They are now floating that they want to go beyond December 12. Are you for that? What, do you just want to go up to the new year? Do you want to ring in the new year with this unending chad controversy?

TAPPER: You know, Mary, I want you to be happy. That's really -- that's really what I'm all about.

MATALIN: That's the new tone. It's the new tone.

TAPPER: Yes. From the left, I'm Jake Tapper, sitting in for Bill Press. Good night from CROSSFIRE.

MATALIN: Well, and I'm so happy to be joined by Jake Tapper. From the right, I'm Mary Matalin. Join both of us again tomorrow night for more CROSSFIRE, and later on: Bill Press and Tucker Carlson on "THE SPIN ROOM."

Good night from CROSSFIRE.

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