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Prime-Time Battle

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How the two camps plotted their strategy: Gore to keep the clock ticking, Bush to call the contest over and declare victory

The generals in Al Gore's army were coming to grips with the idea of losing the war. A ruling by a Florida judge last Friday morning had cleared the way for Katherine Harris, the George W. Bush ally who is also Florida's secretary of state, to announce a final statewide vote tally on Saturday--one that ignored hand recounts in three Democratic counties. The decision left the men who were leading the charge for Gore--campaign chairman Bill Daley and former Secretary of State Warren Christopher--staring into the abyss. Without the hand-counted votes, Harris would surely declare Bush the winner--and Gore's options would evaporate. Bush would throw a victory party, and the calls for Gore to concede would grow deafening. New court challenges, like the one in Palm Beach over the butterfly ballot that led so many people to miscast their votes, would seem like spiteful attempts to delay the inevitable. Late last week, sources told TIME, Daley and Christopher quietly informed the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate, Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle, that if Gore couldn't win on the hand recounts, the campaign would fold its tent. They cautioned that "the principals aren't there yet"--Gore and Joe Lieberman weren't yet ready to go along--"but they will be." Daley and Christopher would find a way to get the message to them.

Gephardt feared that if Harris certified a Bush victory, House Democrats would start abandoning Gore. "People are saying, Enough is enough," a leading Democrat said Friday. "It's time to be a good loser." To buy time, Gephardt organized a Friday-afternoon conference call for Lieberman and House Democrats. About 120 phoned in to hear Lieberman's pep talk. At 4 p.m., as he was making his case to the members, Gore strategist Bob Shrum broke in with some startling news: the Florida Supreme Court had forbidden Harris to certify the vote on Saturday. The court wanted to hear arguments from both sides on Monday. Lieberman responded with a gleeful bark: "All right!" It wasn't over yet.

Gore was like a death-row inmate walking the long green mile--and getting a temporary stay of execution right outside the death chamber. It was almost poetic that the reprieve came from the seven state supreme-court justices, six of them Democrats, who have been wrangling with Governor Jeb Bush this year--over capital punishment. Within two hours of the court's decision, the Vice President got more good news. The canvassing board in Miami-Dade County decided to begin a hand recount of its 654,000 votes. And a federal appeals court in Atlanta rejected Bush's plea to stop all manual recounts on constitutional grounds.

In the end, Friday might be seen as the great turning point in this ferocious battle--or as a final glimmer of false hope for Gore. As former Secretary of State James Baker, Bush's Florida mastermind, was quick to point out, the state court's action was "not an order on the merits." It merely preserved the status quo until Monday's hearing. What the court ruling did not do, however, was freeze the action on the ground. Friday night, as the overseas absentee ballots were counted, Bush and Gore forces locked into another round of frenzied warfare--claims of recount fraud in the disputed counties and hard questions about 1,000 overseas ballots, most of them from members of the armed forces, that were rejected mainly because they had not been postmarked. Democrats had mounted a coordinated challenge against the military ballots because they would probably lean toward Bush. And over that point, the trench war threatened to escalate into a full-scale culture war. The Bush team charged that Gore was disenfranchising the fighting men and women he wants to command as President. General Norman Schwarzkopf called it "a very sad day for our country." With the overseas ballots tallied, Bush's lead grew from 300 to 930 votes. The Vice President's team believes new Gore votes from the hand recounts might be sufficient to overcome that lead--if the court compels Harris to recognize them. But add the rejected military ballots to Bush's total, and the recount probably couldn't catch him. Republican lawyers were deciding whether to sue over the military ballots.

For both teams, the extreme, conflicting emotions of Friday and Saturday were simply the distilled essence of all they had been feeling since the election. As each day brought one or more court rulings, the loser absorbed the blow and moved on--and the winner didn't bother celebrating. There wasn't time. The lawyers were due in court, and the generals were due on television; they were late for strategy sessions or conference calls with their candidate; they were keeping an eye on the polls and the catcalling protesters, the bickering recount monitors, the flawed, human, sometimes heroic county election-board officials trying to do the right thing despite gale-force political winds and media glare. For all the experience of men like Baker, Christopher and Daley, they had never been here before, didn't know the landscape, couldn't buy a map. They had never tried to win a presidential election that was hanging like a chad. And so they ran on instinct and adrenaline and grit, exhausted, their moods careering from absurd highs to grim lows each day, sometimes each hour. "It's peaks and valleys, peaks and valleys," says a top Gore operative. "We win every day. We lose every day."

For all the candidates' talk about core principles--Gore's duty "to respect every voter and every vote," Bush's fealty to "the laws of the State of Florida"--it was clear from the start that both sides would say or do whatever it took to win. Bush's team was right when it said Gore wanted to count and count until he got the result he wants--but Gore firmly believes he won Florida (and thus the presidency). And the Vice President's camp was right when it said Bush was trying to short-circuit the recount and hang on to his slender victory--because he too is convinced the job is rightfully his. Which is why, amid the mind-boggling array of court filings and counterfilings and dueling press conferences, there was really only one narrative line worth following: Bush's attempts (aided by the Democrats' favorite new villainess, Harris) to shut down the recounts, and Gore's maneuverings to keep them going at all costs. "As long as we're counting, it's not over," says a Gore strategist. A Bush aide puts it this way: "We're trying to run out the clock; they're playing for delay."

Hovering behind the generals and lawyers and foot soldiers on both sides, of course, were the principals, Gore and Bush. Their styles couldn't be more different--Gore his own chief strategist, always on the offensive; Bush relying on staff and playing defense--but they are seared in precisely the same way. They are the only men who know what it feels like to be stalled just outside the White House door. Gore's friend Harry Reid, the Nevada Senator, who has been through two election recounts of his own, got a call from Gore on Monday--a plea not for help or information so much as empathy. "It was just a conversation where he was remarking that he had won a quarter million more votes than his opponent, yet this was coming down to hundreds of votes in Florida," Reid says. For all the talk about how Gore is binging on data and calling the shots from his battle station in the vice-presidential residence--a dining room equipped with his big easel for scrawling ideas and his two sets of laptops and phones--Gore also has time to think about what might have been. If he had carried his home state, Florida wouldn't matter. If his get-out-the-vote people in Duval County hadn't given faulty ballot instructions to thousands of voters, Florida wouldn't be close. But the hand count is his focus; once it is finished, he will be able to move on. "Gore needs this," says a senior adviser. "He needs to know, win or lose." Reid recognized the Veep's sense of isolation. "People feel awkward talking to you. They don't know if you're a winner or a loser," he says. "I was alone a lot. Gore, I'm sure, is also alone a lot."

So is Bush. The Governor spent most of last week holed up at his ranch in remote Crawford, Texas, far from the court battles and the ballot fights and the blizzard of chad, with no cable or satellite TV to jack him into the 24-hour news rush. "We want Bush to stay out of it as much as possible," says a senior adviser. "We want Gore to look like he's desperate, like he'll do anything to win." By contrast, the strategists depicted their man as the very picture of rugged ease, reading the new Joe DiMaggio biography, jogging daily, clearing cedar from a path where he and Laura like to ramble--much the way Ronald Reagan found peace chopping wood.

But with the ranch strategy came more of the complaints that have dogged Bush all year, the persistent concerns about the fortitude of a man who once traveled with his pillow and takes two hours off in the middle of his day. Republicans in Washington wondered what Bush was doing out there in Crawford--sulking? "This is the first test of a leader," said a top G.O.P. official, "and he sometimes looks like he's shrinking."

The Governor's team dismissed the criticism; they've heard it all before. And Bush may not have CNN or MSNBC at the ranch, but he has a computer and a phone and uses them to stay in close touch with his team. Every morning at 8 Central time, Bush confers by phone with Baker and Dick Cheney, often joined by campaign chairman Don Evans. At 8:45 there's a wider conference call with Baker, Cheney, strategist Karl Rove, communications director Karen Hughes, longtime Baker aide Margaret Tutwiler, half a dozen other staff members and sometimes Bush. The Governor touches base with Baker four or five times a day and with Rove almost as often.

The key node is Baker to Cheney--the former Secretaries of State and Defense under President Bush, two men who fought the Gulf War together in 1991 and are fighting the Florida war together now. On the day after the election, Baker, who has been an occasional adviser to the son this year, was all set to go hunting in Spain with an eclectic group: Bush's father, the former President, along with Schwarzkopf, former Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight and King Juan Carlos. Then Baker got a call from Bush campaign chairman Don Evans. "I hope you don't think this is a crazy idea," Evans said, "but would you be open to leading our Florida team?" Baker said sure. He's used to getting the we-need-you call from the Bushes, and though he expects no role in a possible Bush Administration, he's pleased to be helping. "Cheney and Baker are running this show," says an official. "They are making decisions and telling W., 'This is the deal.' I'm not saying it's bad. That's how Reagan did it."

Gore is far more connected than Bush--an adviser describes sending Gore an e-mail and being floored when the reply came back "in about 10 seconds." And Gore manages his team in a far more controlling manner. Aides receive several e-mails a day from the boss, asking, What's new? What's going on? What are you hearing? Although he didn't personally recruit Microsoft slayer David Boies to his legal team (he didn't have a conversation with Boies until the lawyer was on the ground in Tallahassee), he attends to most everything else. Says a senior adviser: "He has to own this thing."

In so doing, Gore has finally pulled off something he couldn't manage during the campaign: corralling people from all the far-flung provinces of his party and harnessing them into an effective team. In his final lunge for the White House, he has put aside his doubts about all the people whose complete loyalty he could never count on. He has brought in Bob Bauer, the best election-law mind in America (and a Bill Bradley guy); Boies, one of the few players who appears to be thoroughly enjoying himself but with whom Gore has no prior relationship; and onetime archrivals Jack Corrigan and John Sasso, cutthroat campaign operators with whom Gore tangled in 1988. "We finally got the best people to do their jobs irrespective of their drawbacks," says an aide. "We never got that done in the campaign."

Gore, who can often be moody and stressed, has been eerily confident amid the pressure, "ridiculously upbeat," as an aide puts it. "He thinks he's gonna win. He has very little doubt." Instead of doing what he normally does in meetings--sucking the oxygen out of the room--Gore has been energizing the conference calls and emergency strategy sessions. When an adviser says, "Gore has been really great," he sounds almost surprised.

The Democratic legal team spent most of the week in what one lawyer calls "triage," as Harris issued new opinions and set new deadlines almost daily, and sometimes hourly, most of them designed to delay the hand recounts until they became moot. At first, the Gore lawyers were primed for battle, but by Tuesday night the mood turned somber. Daley was so tired that he began to resemble Bert the Muppet. Christopher at times looked absolutely ancient. As their anger and frustration rose, Harris became the woman they loved to hate, just as she did for Democrats around the country. If she wasn't taking her orders from Austin--and she swears she was not--she might as well have been, since her every decision furthered Bush's goal. Members of Gore's legal team pushed all week to go after her in the courts, if not for possible election-law violations, then for breaking the Sunshine law, because her Elections Canvassing Commission met in secret. But Christopher vetoed the idea--until Saturday, when Gore's supreme-court brief called her decisions "Kafkaesque."

The Gore camp claims to have been stunned by Harris' rashness in refusing all recounts and not maintaining a pose of impartiality. Instead, she banked the fires in all three counties--and Gore's folks can't believe Bush let her do it. "They just totally blew her credibility," says a Gore adviser. "If they had been 10% less brazen, they'd be 50% better off."

As much as Gore's team loathed Harris, Bush's wanted to throw her a parade. "Everyone here believes that she is going to put her name on the [certification] paper and call it a day," says an official in Austin. She might still get her chance, if the state supreme court rules in her favor. "At some point," the official says, "the clock will strike midnight."

If Gore did manage to change his luck for the better last week, his advisers will point to the moment on Wednesday when he overruled them and went before the cameras during the network news broadcasts to suggest a way out of the Florida swamp. He proposed either a hand recount in the disputed Democratic counties, or a hand recount statewide; if Bush agreed, Gore would drop the legal challenges and abide by the result. The plan didn't take--Bush rejected it three hours later, seeing it as a sign that Gore had lost faith in his legal strategy and believing that both of Gore's options would give the Democrat an advantage. But it made Gore look statesmanlike at a time when Bush was portraying him as an election stealer. "This is about much more than what happens to me or my opponent," he said. "It is about our democracy."

Gore had been mulling the idea since the weekend, but it wasn't until Wednesday afternoon that he told his aides he was ready to do it. When an adviser was summoned to Gore's residence that day, he found an argument under way. Lieberman was there, along with speechwriter Eli Attie and consultants Carter Eskew and Bob Shrum, and some were trying to talk Gore out of it. "People were saying, 'Is this the right moment to do this? We could wait until tomorrow, see what the situation is then.' He said, 'For me, it's the right moment, and I want to do it, so we're doing it.'" Gore talked to the lawyers in Florida and alerted what an adviser describes as "major people in the party." He dictated a version of the speech, and Shrum, Eskew and Attie cleaned it up. Then he broke into all the evening newscasts--and caught Bush flat-footed. To make sure the editorial pages realized how bold he had been, Gore started phoning them as soon as his broadcast was finished. He called Miami Herald editorial-page editor Tom Fiedler and said, "Hi, Tom. This is Al Gore."

"Who is this really?"

"It's really Al Gore."

"No, it isn't."

"Wait, let me put Tipper on." After Tipper convinced Fiedler, Gore came back on the line. "I nearly hung up on you," Fiedler told him. "Has anyone done that to you yet?"

"Only the L.A. Times."

While Gore was on the phone to Fiedler, Bush was on the phone to Baker in Florida and then to the communications team in Austin. They all agreed that he needed to respond personally--and fast. But since Bush was at the ranch and needed to rush back to Austin, he let Gore's words hang in the air for three opinion-shaping hours. After a high-speed, 90-minute motorcade ride into Austin, he spent less than an hour in the mansion. He met with Cheney, Evans, Rove, Hughes and others, going over the statement they had prepared for him. Then he delivered it. "The outcome of this election will not be the result of deals or efforts to mold public opinion," he said. "[It] will be determined by the votes and by the law." He was back in the limo less than 15 minutes after he finished. The pro-Bush demonstrators who had gathered outside the mansion gates (holding signs like KISS MY DIMPLED CHAD) were deflated by the brevity of the visit. They broke up and went home soon after Bush's motorcade sped away.

At that moment and for most of the past week, Bush seemed like one of those mysterious Soviet leaders of the pre-Gorbachev era: much was said and done in his name and under his authority, but the man himself was barely seen or heard. Since the morning after the stillborn election, Austin's strategy was to have Bush be the victor who must patiently tolerate a few technicalities. But Gore's plan to chip away at that notion has had an effect. It helped that Gore won the popular vote. And the Gore message--count all the votes--may have been expedient, but it was also simple. Bush's response wasn't: We can't trust people to count the votes fairly, he said; and that just didn't sound right coming from a man who spent a year talking about how much he trusts the people. To compound the problem, it emerged that in 1997 Bush signed a law saying that in close Texas elections, manual recounts are preferable to electronic recounts; Texas law even specifies that hanging and dimpled chads--punch-card holes still partly attached to the ballot or merely dented--should be counted. Gore would be delighted to abide by Texas rules in Florida.

Even as Gore scrambled for the high ground, Bush stuck to his I've-already-won strategy. Only one item was tossed out--the transition posturing that gave rise to that West Wing-style photo op with Bush and his Cabinet-in-waiting. The Florida battle is so all-consuming that his top people have had to put governance on the back burner; first they have to win. "Right now we're spending every minute managing this," says Hughes.

Though Bush claimed to have disdain for "efforts to mold public opinion," his advisers, like Gore's, were obsessed with them. Rove and his team carefully weighed the question of how often to bring their man in front of the cameras. Tuesday and Wednesday they talked about herding the press corps to the ranch to show off Bush's good spirits. By Thursday they decided that things were going so well that the candidate didn't need to get in the way of the news. "The news in Florida was so good," an aide says, "we'd let it speak for itself." But by Friday afternoon and the state supreme court's decision to postpone certification, the good news was going bad. Soon after that, Bush left his ranch for Austin.

With Bush's defenses against the recounts threatening to crumble, Republicans are second-guessing his static, defensive strategy. Instead of running out the clock and relying on Harris, why hadn't his team pushed for hand counts in Republican counties where he might pick up more votes? His aides explained that doing so would destroy his argument against Gore's recounts and that even in counties Bush had won, their analysis showed more miscast ballots came from Democrats than Republicans. Whatever that may say about the aptitude of voters from the two parties, it told Bush's people that demanding recounts in G.O.P. counties might hurt more than help. They let the deadline pass without requesting them.

The Republicans in Florida, like their Democratic counterparts, have not missed an opportunity to grab the slightest edge. Often, the embattled county canvassing officials bore the brunt of their tactics. In Palm Beach, where the crucial hand count was delayed for days by legal wrangling, Republicans tried to stall the process further on Thursday by challenging every fifth ballot. That same day in Broward, a county G.O.P. lawyer named William Scherer stormed into the canvassing room to serve the board subpoenas. "You are acting in defiance of election laws," he cried, adding that the board members "would be testifying in court." And in court they were the very next day, further delaying the recount process until the judge threw out the suit.

On Saturday, the situation became even uglier, as Bush's team hammered Gore over the rejected military ballots and stepped up its charge that the manual-recount process was "distorting, reinventing and miscounting" the vote, as Hughes said. Alleging that Bush ballots had been found in Gore piles and that biased workers had taped the chad back into Bush punch holes, the Bush team worked mightily to convince the public that the recount process is polluted beyond measure. Democrats, of course, disagreed.

In the end, the state supreme court will probably decide that argument. But the hand recount turns out to be an apt metaphor for how Americans view the election itself. They both come down to the same kind of scrutiny: holding the thing up high, examining it closely and trying to see where the light comes shining through.

--With reporting by John F. Dickerson, Michael Duffy, Tamala M. Edwards and Karen Tumulty/Washington, James Carney with Bush, Cathy Booth Thomas/Tallahassee, and Timothy Roche/Palm Beach

For the latest updates on the undecided presidential election, go to time.com


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Cover Date: November 27, 2000

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