THE INSIDE STORY: FOR MORE THAN A YEAR, A TEAM ON NEWSWEEK REPORTERS HAS BEEN FOLLOWING THE CANDIDATES AND THEIR ADVISERS, GATHERING CONFIDENTIAL INFORMATION FOR THIS NOW-IT-CAN-BE-TOLD ACCOUNT OF THE RACE BETWEEN AL GORE AND GEORGE W. BUSH FROM DAY ONE T

This was a campaign in which Election Day didn't mark the end of the race for George W. Bush and Al Gore, but rather the beginning of another lap-- which turned out to be the most extraordinary, exciting and grueling of all

Battle After the Bell Bush family dinners are usually jovial, filled with teasing and inside jokes. But as about 60 members of George W's extended clan, plus a few close friends, sat down to dinner at the Shoreline Grill in Austin, Texas, on election night, the mood was edgy and uncomfortable. Nationwide, the exit polls that afternoon had not been quite as promising as the Bush campaign had expected. Nonetheless, brother Jeb, the governor of Florida, seemed to be upbeat. Jeb was under tremendous pressure to deliver his home state and its 25 electoral votes. W had joked that if Jeb didn't come through, it would be a "chilly Thanksgiving" around the Bush dinner table. So Jeb was relieved to report to his brother that the early returns from Florida seemed reasonably encouraging.

As dinner began, George W kept getting up to stare at the TV set in the corner. Suddenly, at 6:50 p.m. Central standard time, MSNBC projected that the state of Florida would go to Al Gore. Standing with his son, former president Bush looked stricken, family members later told NEWSWEEK. Jeb walked over and hugged W. "I'm really sorry, brother," he said. He began to tear up. The candidate's twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara, broke down. They buried their heads in his chest. Their father bowed his head and held them close. "It's a long night," said President Bush.

He had no idea. Not just a long night, but a long week, after a very long campaign that still has no certain end in sight. "Are you ready for war?" George W. Bush challenged his campaign staff back in the fall of 1999, when the ordeal was just beginning. Bush would be the first to tell you that he was just using a political cliche. Politicians and their operatives often sound like a cross between Vince Lombardi and Gen. George S. Patton. But the race between George Bush and Al Gore at times did have the feel of a death struggle. "I'm not like George Bush," Al Gore told an aide in 1999, when the campaign was just gearing up. "If he wins or loses, life goes on. I'll do anything to win." Bush may not have been quite as driven. "If this doesn't work out, I've got a life," he told a NEWSWEEK reporter in December 1999, when his campaign seemed to be dragging. But Bush, too, had plenty to prove. He rejected the suggestion that he was trying to live up to his war-hero father by restoring the Bush family name to the White House. "The personal war to vindicate my old man?" he scoffed on the eve of the election. "Too complex." But Bush could not disguise his desire to show up the "intellectual elitism" of pundits who questioned his intelligence. "You know, they tried to pin a label on me that I wasn't prepared for the job... I just kind of found it amusing," he said, sounding unamused.

The inside story of Campaign 2000 has few grace notes. It was gritty and grinding and rarely uplifting. But it was always extraordinarily close, seesawing in unpredictable ways, though never quite as spectacularly as on election night. It is not likely to be remembered for overarching ideas or soaring rhetoric, but it will be recalled for its unsurpassed drama. How so much money and planning produced such a tangled result is a testament less to the American political system than to the willfulness and foibles of human nature--certainly, to the human qualities of the two men who are still desperately vying for the White House.

For someone who had to spend much of two years on the road, crisscrossing America, George Bush was a homebody. On election night, the candidate and his wife, Laura, had been scheduled to go up to a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel to watch the returns before going down for a victory celebration. But at dinner, after the shocking news about Florida, Bush wanted to go home. "Let's go over to the mansion," he said. "Do you want us to come along?" asked his father. "Yep," said the candidate. Jeb, who had left the room to call Florida on his mobile phone, walked back in. He was no longer remorseful. "This just isn't right," he said. "It just can't be. We've got him up."

At Bush headquarters a few blocks away at 301 Congress Avenue, Karl Rove, Bush's capable and intensely loyal chief strategist, was sitting behind his massive desk, telephone headset on, crunching numbers. "Get me a damned calculator I can understand," he declared. Publicly, Bush confidently predicted victory on his brother's home turf. Privately, Rove's team--the "strategery" department, as staffers dryly referred to it in Bushspeak--had long ago put Florida in the tough-to-win column. They had prepared a "Doomsday Map" of states the campaign would have to carry if Bush lost the Big Three of Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Still, Rove was perplexed and angry at the networks for calling Florida so early. Voters were still going to the polls in the western Panhandle, conservative GOP territory. Comparing numbers over the phone with Jeb, Rove thought the networks were not only premature but wrong. Rove instructed his staff to call network officials to complain, then he went before the cameras himself to protest publicly.

In Nashville, Tenn., in their seventh-floor staff room at the Loews Vanderbilt Plaza Hotel, Gore's inner circle watched Rove with growing uneasiness. Was he just spinning? The Gore camp may not have liked Bush's top aide, but it respected him as a vote counter. The mood had been jubilant earlier in the evening. When the networks called Florida, then Pennsylvania and Michigan for Gore, the candidate's daughters Kristin and Karenna had embraced. The veep's wife, Tipper, jumped up and down and hugged her girls and everyone else in sight. But within 20 minutes, the mood in the suite turned downcast. Just before 9 p.m., CST, the networks suddenly yanked Florida back into the undecided column. Network officials later blamed bad data for the wrong call, but the phone calls from the Bush camp no doubt had an effect. The Gore team began to show the first signs of bitterness. In several states, Ralph Nader's vote was larger than Bush's lead. When Nader's face appeared on TV, the aides turned off the sound. They couldn't bear to hear his voice.

Bill Clinton, the shrewdest vote counter in the land, was watching from the hotel suite of his wife, the newly elected senator from New York. In the week before the election, Clinton had kept a series of electoral tallies scribbled in his left-handed scrawl. Each day he'd add up two columns of states, those for Gore and those for Bush. So far, the vote count was going almost exactly as he predicted, with only two exceptions: he had wrongly given Wisconsin to Bush and--perhaps wrongly--Florida to Gore. He was pacing around a room stocked with four TV sets. He seemed to be having fun, an aide observed, as if he was watching a close and important basketball game.

The president had felt thwarted for most of Campaign 2000. Al Gore didn't seem to want his advice or his presence on the campaign trail. His wife was happier to have his help--and so far at least, was the more successful for it. The first exit polls had shown her leading Rick Lazio by 10 points. The margin had dipped in the afternoon to four, then bounced back up to eight. "Oh, thank God," the president said when he got the news. By evening, as the Clintons helicoptered into Manhattan from their Chappaqua, N.Y., home, Clinton was working away on Hillary's victory speech. His wife was reading the newspaper, too nervous to deal with it. She was in a hotel bathrobe, having her hair done, when Lazio called to concede around 10:40 p.m. Aides whooped; she went around dispensing hugs. Everyone was careful to say "I hope Al's OK."

By midnight, as one state after another was called by the networks and the Electoral College split down the middle, it was becoming increasingly apparent that Florida would decide the election. In Austin, in the living room of the governor's mansion, former president Bush lay splayed out on the sofa, his feet up, but hardly relaxing. His oldest son, George, sat frozen in an armchair, clicking his TV remote. Once, he stood to feed his six-toed cat, Ernie. "Get me figures, little brother," he urged. A revived Jeb Bush, the family's techno-whiz, worked a computer to get the latest Florida vote as it dribbled in, precinct by precinct. "I can't believe this is happening," said George Bush. "This is like running for a city-council seat."

Most of the candidate's siblings and friends were holed up in a pair of suites on the ninth floor of the Four Seasons, anxiously watching a bank of TV screens. Bush's margin in Florida was shrinking: 200,000, then 100,000, then 60,000. Suddenly, at 1:16 a.m. CST, Fox TV News declared Florida for Bush. "Bush wins!" the network declared. In suite 916, Bush's best Texas friend and campaign chairman, Don Evans, looked at Bush's Yale classmate Roland Betts. They were surprised. They thought they'd win Florida in a squeaker. Could the networks be jumping the gun again? Over at Bush headquarters at 301 Congress, no one cheered very loudly when Fox declared their man the president of the United States. They had been burned once by an early projection. "It's just Fox," said Karl Rove. Another staffer asked, cautiously, "Is this going to be a bandwagon?" Thirty seconds later, it was: all the networks began declaring Bush the winner.

"Karl!" an aide cried out to Rove. "It's the governor!" "No!" someone interjected, "it's the president-elect!" Rove picked up his line. "Yes, sir," he said, beaming. The roaring room grew silent. ""Great, let's go do it, sir." More pandemonium. "It's finally over!" cried Bush's chief pollster, Matthew Dowd. He looked like a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown. "We thought we were going to lose," he later said. The election had been "the most emotionally draining experience of my life." Dowd did not know it, but the night was far from over.

Ecstatic, the Bush family and friends poured out of the elevator and headed for buses that would carry them to the victory rally at the state capitol. As she rushed out the door, George's sister, Dorothy, told a NEWSWEEK reporter, "It was like a snap of the fingers, and George was president!" His daughter Barbara picked up a friend and twirled her around. Bush's brother Marvin ("Big Marv") gave a GOP fund-raiser a high-five and cried, "Oh, baby!" Marvin couldn't resist some brotherly towel-snapping at Jeb, the Florida governor, who had been so close to despair. "Jebby!" he called. "You can come in from the ledge now!"

In Nashville, Al Gore was watching the returns with his staff. He had drafted a victory speech and showed no signs of discouragement after the networks took Florida out of his win column. He still thought he could win the Sunshine State, where Bush's lead seemed to be dropping rapidly. Suddenly, someone yelled out, "Turn to ABC!" Gore himself punched the remote--and heard the network pronounce George W. Bush the next president of the United States.

There was dead silence. Several of Gore's aides quietly said, "I'm sorry." Gore showed no sign of pain or remorse. He simply turned around and said, "I want to thank all of you. We've come a long way." The veep said he wanted a little time to talk to his family. But he made it clear he planned to concede right away. "I'm sure all of us will cry," a stunned Gore adviser told a reporter only minutes later. "Some of us already have. But not in front of him. He set an extraordinary example."

The vice president called Bush and in a brief conversation graciously conceded. Within minutes, a glum motorcade was making its way to a rain-drenched rally at Nashville's War Memorial Plaza. Gore's running mate, Sen. Joe Lieberman, had warned against throwing in the towel too quickly. And Donna Brazile, Gore's feisty campaign manager, had sent an urgent page: "Never surrender. It's not over yet." But most aides were resigned.

Then, in the buses and limousines, mobile phones began to buzz and beep. Chris Lehane, Gore's spokesman, who had stayed back at the hotel, got a message from AP reporter Ron Fournier. The reporter told Lehane that his wire service showed a different vote count from the networks'. The gap was closing in Florida, fast. The race wasn't over. Lehane quickly tried to phone Gore's car in the motorcade, but he couldn't get through. So many mobile phones were operating that the airwaves were jammed.

Back in the "boiler room" at campaign headquarters, Gore's field director, Michael Whouley, was getting the same numbers from Florida. Bush's lead had shrunk to 6,000. Whouley paged traveling chief of staff Mike Feldman, who was riding in the motorcade--now only two blocks from the War Memorial and the waiting crowd. Don't let him concede, Whouley told Feldman. Feldman, in turn, called campaign chairman Bill Daley, who called Gore, riding in a limo with Tipper up ahead. "Whatever you do, do not go out on the stage!" Daley shouted to the candidate.

Sitting in a bus en route to the rally, senior Gore aide Greg Simon was also hearing that a startling reversal was underway. A telecommunications expert, Simon was getting messages from a friend of his "in the Internet world" who was monitoring the Florida vote tabulations online. Bush's margin had plummeted from 50,000 with 98 percent of the vote counted to a mere 500 with 99.5 percent counted. Simon turned to a friend and said, "This is like a movie where one character says to another, 'This isn't the way it was supposed to happen.' And then, there's a wrinkle in time, and everything changes."

Walking into the candidate's holding room in the bowels of the War Memorial, Simon discovered an extraordinary scene. The concession speech, already fed into a teleprompter, had been junked. More than two dozen Gore aides had gathered to confer on the next move. A recount was automatic if the margin stayed under one half of 1 percent. Gore quickly directed aides to draft a statement to be read by Daley. Then he placed his second phone call of the evening to George Bush.

Circumstances have changed dramatically since I first called you," Gore began. "The state of Florida is too close to call."

Bush was brusque and a little incredulous. "Are you saying what I think you're saying?" he demanded. "Let me make sure that I understand. You're calling back to retract that concession?"

"Don't get snippy about it!" Gore said, as his listening aides tried not to laugh. "Let me explain," Gore went on. If Bush won in the recount, Gore would support him. But it was too soon to be claiming Florida.

Bush begged to differ. His brother, the governor of Florida, was standing right there, and he was reporting a Bush victory in the state.

Gore coolly said something to the effect that Bush's brother was not the final arbiter of victory in Florida.

Now it was Bush's turn to be cold. "Do what you have to do," he said, and hung up.

The television networks were in chaos. For the second time that night, they pulled Florida back into the undecided column and replaced bush wins with too close to call. NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw ruefully observed, "We don't have egg on our face. We have an omelet." The New York Times had run off 115,000 copies of an edition declaring, bush appears to defeat gore. In the newsroom, Executive Editor Joe Lelyveld had to stand and shout the classic, but hardly ever heard, command: "Stop the presses!"

At the War Memorial, Daley trudged out to greet the rain-soaked crowd. "I've been in politics a very long time," he said. "I don't think there's ever been a night like this one." Few were enjoying it quite as much as President Clinton, still watching with fascination from his suite in Manhattan. He called Gore at 4:18 a.m. and had a few laughs about the unpredictability of life. It was a rare friendly conversation between two men who had become estranged over the course of the past two years. Clinton had bridled at the suggestion that Gore would somehow be dragged down by "Clinton fatigue." He felt vindicated by Hillary's comfortable win in New York and Gore's lead in the popular vote. The president was too keyed up to sleep. He played his favorite card game, Oh Hell, with his aides until 6 a.m. As usual, he won.

Tad Devine, a media consultant who had run the day-to-day operations of the Gore campaign, had finally fallen asleep at 3 a.m., when his phone rang. Staff meeting in campaign chairman Daley's room, he was told, right away. Gore was winning the popular vote nationwide by about 250,000--twice JFK's margin over Richard Nixon in 1960. He was perhaps a thousand votes shy in Florida, where there had been reports all day of voting irregularities. Some ballot -boxes seemed to be missing. Elderly voters were reporting confusion over the ballot in Palm Beach County. Many feared that they had voted for Pat Buchanan by mistake, or voted twice and had their ballots thrown out. There was sure to be a recount, maybe legal challenges. Daley was putting together a planeful of lawyers, experts in election law, civil-rights law, constitutional law and just plain politics, and sending them to Florida. The team would be headed by Los Angeles lawyer Warren Christopher. An ex-secretary of State with a formal, polite bearing (but a tough, partisan heart), Christopher was regarded as a "wise man" of the Democratic Party. His presence would give the flying squad instant credibility and gravitas.

The Gore plane (actually, Joe Lieberman's campaign plane, painted with Gore-Lieberman) landed in Tallahassee, the Florida state capital, shortly after dawn. The Gore team spotted another plane across the tarmac: Gov. Jeb Bush's. The GOP candidate's brother and Jeb's son George P. were just getting off. There were some long stares. A strange legal-political-moral battle was about to be joined.

At Bush headquarters, aides scrambled to launch a counteroffensive. Researchers looked for video clips of Al Gore's saying, just a few days earlier when it looked like Bush might carry the popular vote, that what really mattered was the electoral vote. Election-law specialists were hired. The Bush campaign recruited its own wise man to balance Christopher: President Bush's secretary of State, James A. Baker, known in equal measure for his integrity and media savvy.

Confidence, or the appearance of it, is a George W. Bush trademark, and the presumptive president was determined to act like one. At a morning press availability, Bush restrained his usual arched eyebrows and mugging for reporters and appeared more dignified and reserved than usual. His posture was erect. His aides began talking about a "transition" and leaking possible names for cabinet positions. Talking points were faxed from Austin to GOP consultants and spinners in Washington: anyone talking to the news media was to refer to "President-elect Bush" and "Vice President-elect Cheney." At least one consultant threw the talking points into the trash. All this posturing, he knew, was sure to backfire. It would only inflame the Democrats.

Al Gore had been awake 50 straight hours when he finally collapsed toward dawn on Wednesday. He awoke around noon and summoned his aides. Tipper welcomed them into the hotel suite, offering Diet Cokes and taking their pictures. A somewhat reluctant enlistee in her husband's quest, she often used her camera to step outside the situation, to give herself a little distance and detachment. She was being a "trooper," said a friend, but she was "exhausted, a zombie."

Gore told his aides that he proposed to make a short public statement: he would call for a prompt resolution of the voting confusion in Florida but also warn against a rush to judgment. Later that afternoon, he appeared in full presidential regalia, behind a blocky podium and flanked by American flags. The message was intentional. Gore might not be inaugurated in January, but for the next four years he would strike the pose of president-in-waiting. His demeanor was dignified, above the fray. But he and his aides were irritated by what they regarded as Bush's presumption. Gore believed that he had won the presidency. He just wasn't sure how to claim it.

The Gore camp was emboldened by the news that 19,000 ballots had been thrown out in Palm Beach County because voters had punched their cards twice, or for some other irregularity. The ballot had been printed with the names of the candidates in large type, so elderly voters wouldn't have to "squint," as the ballot designer put it. But because the candidates' names were on both sides of the punch holes, some voters were confused about which button to press for the candidate of their choice. Right-wing independent candidate Pat Buchanan got 3,407 votes in Palm Beach County, a suspiciously high number for a voting area heavily populated with aging Jewish liberals.

On Thursday, Gore's top men escalated the rhetoric. Christopher described the confusing ballot as "illegal." Daley accused Bush of arrogantly trying to snatch the presidency and warned that the Gore camp would support legal challenges to the vote. The Democrats seemed to be preparing to try to move the election into the courts. Meanwhile, as the Florida recount proceeded, Bush's lead began to erode--from 1,700 votes, to 1,200, to 600. By 6 p.m., with three counties left to report, the margin was down to a mere 327 votes. Those counties were safe, the Bush team believed. Then Polk County reported and Bush lost an additional 137 votes. Bush's pollster Matthew Dowd and his foreign-policy adviser Condoleezza Rice were watching at the 301 Congress headquarters. "It's just weird," said Rice. "This is unbelievable," said Dowd. "It just never ends."

The strain was visible. Bush had developed a red boil on the right side of his face, just in front of his ear ("Stress?" a reporter asked. "No," Bush shot back with an angry look). Karl Rove was famous inside the campaign for his memory for detail and his ability to joke under pressure. Now he was walking around with a blank stare and repeating the same questions. He kept asking when the overseas absentee ballots would be counted. The absentee ballots were critical: the Bush camp was counting on them to increase their man's lead because so many came from serv-ice-men abroad, who tended to be Bush supporters. But Democrats were furiously spinning that those absentee voters also included many Florida Jews on vacation or living for a time in Israel. No one could be sure.

Would Gore really push a legal challenge to the Florida vote that could drag on for months? Or was he just bluffing, buying time and hoping the recount would turn his way? No one seemed to know--possibly including Gore. He was said to be calm and stoical ("a rock," said Lehane). On Friday, back in Washington, he posed for cameras playing a Kennedyesque game of touch football with family and friends on the lawn of the vice president's mansion. Meanwhile his aides were placing their hopes on a manual recount in some traditionally Democratic strongholds.

Incredibly, it seemed, the presidency was coming down to something called a "hanging chad." When voters use an outdated (and no doubt soon-to-be-obsolete) punch-card ballot, they sometimes fail to push the hole all the way through. A tiny dangling piece of paper--a hanging chad--remains and can fall back to fill the hole in the card. Voting machines read such ballots as not having cast any vote. In heavily Democratic Broward County, some 6,700 ballots had been disqualified. So in several Florida counties, officials were set to begin the laborious process of reading the ballots by hand, trying to determine whether voters really meant to punch for Gore or Bush (or Buchanan or Nader).

The prospect of a manual recount was the Bush camp's worse nightmare. Bush's team feared that the courts might order Florida elections officials to re-interview all 19,000 people whose ballots were thrown out to determine their true intent. A Bush staffer spluttered about "people getting $5 an hour to read people's minds." He was especially worried, of course, that those vote counters would be Democrats. Belatedly, the Bush team began to push back. On Saturday morning, Jim Baker was sent out to announce that the Republicans were suing to prevent the whole manual-recount process as unconstitutional. Baker then pleaded for a mutual stand-down from litigation--while threatening to escalate the war by demanding recounts in states that had gone narrowly for Gore.

Over the weekend, Bush escaped to his ranch. He likes it, said an aide, in part because he can sleep there. The governor's mansion in Austin is on a busy street. Through the walls of his bedroom, Bush could hear protesters chanting as they waved signs proclaiming "Bush can't seize power!" with a Nazi swastika for the "s." It pleased Bush that reporters--the "punditry" --had no place to stay in Crawford, Texas, a one-stoplight town devoid of expense-account restaurants. Without as many annoying reporters around, he was free to meet with his advisers to plan the new administration-- that may never take office.

The surrealism of electoral limbo was beginning to sink in by the weekend. The Gore forces seemed to be toning down their rhetoric. Some middle-of-the-road Democratic senators, John Breaux of Louisiana and Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, were calling on their party's candidate to drop his threat of lawsuits for the good of the country. Gore and Daley were bothered by a New York Times editorial taking both sides to task for contemplating a "scorched-earth legal strategy." Daley has memories of the cloud that hung over his father, Mayor Richard J. Daley, who was widely accused of "stealing" the 1960 election for John F. Kennedy by delivering the Chicago vote a little too expeditiously.

Gore was said by close friends to be torn. There are at least two Al Gores, and they are sometimes at war with each other. One is Fighting Al, who will, as he told his aide two years ago, "do anything to win." This is the Al Gore who will pander shamelessly and stretch the truth. But there is also Honorable Al, who sees himself as very much a moral person, who wants to do the "right thing" and believes that, by and large in his career, he has. It was not clear which of those Al Gores would emerge in the days ahead. For that matter, it was still not quite clear what "the right thing" was.

On Thursday night, President Clinton held a formal dinner to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the White House. Since all former presidents were invited and expected to attend, the potential for awkwardness was great indeed. George and Barbara Bush, looking a little uneasy, came as scheduled. They were not seated next to the Clintons and rarely had occasion to speak to their hosts, though the atmosphere was cordial throughout the evening. At one point, the Marine Band struck up "God Bless America." The singing was unusually robust and heartfelt. Former president Gerald Ford gave a short, plain-spoken, eloquent toast. The Constitution works, he said. We are a people of laws, not of men. Not a few of the guests teared up as they listened.

Noble words, and true enough. But politics is all about men and women, about human nature, its heights and depths. The 2000 race for the presidency may not have been elevating or particularly heroic. But it was--and still is--intensely human. And the drama that reached such a fever pitch after the polls closed had begun a good two years earlier, with the first maneuverings in Washington and Texas.