At his ranch in Crawford, Texas, George W. Bush was looking at the world beyond Inauguration Day. Dick Cheney and Colin Powell had journeyed there, wives in tow, for lunch, a strolling photo opportunity on the prairie--and a serious discussion of the hot spots Bush will need to know about if he becomes president next month. Cheney had begun receiving high-level briefings from the Clinton administration, and Powell, in line to be Bush's secretary of State, provided a global sit rep for his presumptive boss: the Mideast, China, Russia, the Balkans. "The idea was simple enough," said a member of the Bush circle. "No surprises on Jan. 20."
At his mansion in Washington, Al Gore was looking at a much smaller world--and longing for a surprise. The courts, he hoped, would order recounts, which would prove that he, not Bush, had won Florida--and, therefore, the White House. Or maybe they would throw out enough absentee ballots in one county, Seminole, to turn things around.
But time was running out. Federal law, and the Florida Supreme
Court, had set Dec. 12 as what could be a drop-dead--or drop-out--date. Florida courts hadn't been moving quickly, or favorably, and Bush's lawyers were poking sticks into the always slow-moving wheels of justice. Perhaps the U.S. Supreme Court would give Gore a boost, politically if not legally, by blessing (or not preventing) recounts. Gore hunkered down to listen--intently, repeatedly--to the high court on audiotape. "They're going to be helpful," he predicted to an adviser, but didn't sound entirely convinced.
Bush and Gore were focused on different deadlines--and, it seemed, diverging destinies. Bush staffers were cautioned not to call the boss "president-elect," but he marched ahead presidentially: meeting with Powell, hosting Republican congressional leaders, working the phone with his putative Oval Office inner circle. Gore, by contrast, was mired in an urgent two-front war--legal and political--to prevent the books from snapping shut on Campaign 2000. He'd won the national popular vote by 350,000, and he was convinced he'd won it in Florida as well. But three counts there said otherwise, and the governor is headed for victory in the Electoral College if Florida remains where it officially sits: in the Bush column.
Slowly, but clearly, the public seems to be losing patience--not with Gore's legal arguments, but with Gore himself. In the new NEWSWEEK Poll, voters agree with him by an overwhelming 62-33 percent margin that the so-called "undervotes" should be counted in Miami-Dade. A majority agrees that it's more important to "remove all possible doubt" (52 percent) than to resolve the matter "as soon as possible" (44 percent). And yet a majority (55 percent) disapproves of how Gore--perhaps all too visible on TV last week--has "personally handled the situation." And by a 53-44 percent margin, voters think Gore should concede. That majority grows to between 58 and 61 percent when voters are asked what he should do once the U.S. Supreme Court rules.
Elected Democrats were sticking with him--at least publicly, through last weekend, watching to see what the courts would do. A rush of favorable rulings in Florida would keep them in line (though there were none last week); a flatly hostile ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court would be a crushing political blow. Meanwhile Gore had to watch for cracks in the party foundation. One might appear in the Senate, where 14 Democrats must run in two years--several in states Bush won handily. "Some of those people aren't going to stick with Gore much longer," said a consultant who represents several.
More ominous for Gore was this: politicians, including Democrats, tend to be optimists, and to prefer new wars to old ones. In the House, Democrats couldn't wait to battle with Tom DeLay and Dick Armey, and hope that outrage among core voters produces Democratic control (Speaker Dick Gephardt) in 2002. In the Senate, Democrats are giddy at the thought that they might be sharing power with the Republicans. A Democratic recount victory in Washington state means the Senate will be split 50-50--but only, ironically, if Joe Lieberman stays in his Connecticut seat. "Frankly, we're not paying much attention to the presidential," said a Democratic-leadership aide--as if Gore's name had been forgotten.
But Gore's biggest obstacle isn't in the polls or on the Hill or even in the GOP-run Florida Legislature, which this week might vote to name its own slate of Bush electors. His main problem is in the courts. That's true even if the U.S. Supreme Court rules in his favor by supporting the Florida court's extension of the recount deadline. For Gore will still need help, and fast, on the ground in Florida. Perhaps he'll get it in the suit from Seminole, where local officials completed thousands of absentee-ballot applications for Republican voters. A hearing on the case is scheduled for this week, but Gore's attorneys didn't join it, and aren't relying on it. "It's not our focus, which is to count more ballots, not fewer," said one top adviser. (They also think the effort probably will not succeed, since the ballots themselves weren't tampered with.)
Gore needs prompt--furious--action on the official contest he filed last week in Leon County (Tallahassee) trial court. In the suit, Gore's lawyers asked Judge N. Sanders Sauls to include already counted but not certified results in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach (a net gain of 331 votes); award Gore a net of 51 votes in Nassau County by requiring the use of the first recount results, and order the hand recount of some 14,000 disputed ballots from Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties. The process, they assured Sauls in a hearing last Saturday, could be finished quickly--and would net Gore more than enough to overturn the election.
But courts move slowly--even ones that end up on national TV--and Republican lawyers were in no hurry. Democrats accused them of using "dilatory" tactics, but the Bushmen plodded on. There was no reason for further counting, they insisted. But if the court did decide to count any ballots, they said, it needed to count all of them: the 1 million ballots that had been shipped, by Ryder truck and O.J.-style convoy, from Miami and Palm Beach to Judge Sauls's courthouse in Tallahassee. If Sauls agrees to do recounts, the Bush team will immediately appeal his ruling--and perhaps his preliminary rulings in between--to Florida's Supreme Court.
The Bush team's political strategy was obvious: to bore the American public into submission. Even Judge Sauls, his reading glasses low on his nose, had a vacant look at times as he rocked in his leather chair. The Gore team, playing an away game, summoned to the stand one Nicolas Hengartner, a statistician from Yale. He did his best to fend off the lugubriously methodical cross-examination by Phil Beck, a Central Casting corporate litigator in a yellow power tie. TV viewers, riveted since election night by a race too close to call, were unlikely to hang around for long without the O.J.-Monica legal leitmotifs of sex and death.
The legal strategy was equally plain: to run out the clock. Under the terms of a federal law written in 1887, the state must certify to Congress its slate of electors by Dec. 12. The Florida high court also cited that date as the crucial "conclusive" one. Any fiddling with the electors after that, the court ruled, could "disenfranchise" Florida voters altogether. Katherine Harris has already sent in the Bush certification; the Gore team wants the court to do the recounts, and order her to send in another one. If the Goreans succeed, then their slate will be the "presumptively valid" one for Congress to consider when it meets in January to officially count electoral votes. But that's a long way from now--and Dec. 12 is fast approaching.