War Of The Weary

The clock had runout, and so had Judge Charles Burton's good humor. The head of the Palm Beach election-canvassing board had appealed for more time--just a bit, after, as he put it, "an awful lot of great people... had been breaking their behinds for about 20 hours a day the past two weeks"--to finish its manual recount. But the office of Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris summarily denied the request. "I don't know what another two and a half hours would have meant, but why not?" Burton bitterly exclaimed. "We all want to finish the job we started to do."

The judge wasn't the only one having a nightmarish weekend. "I know what they [the Republicans] are going to try to do," Bill Daley, Al Gore's campaign chairman, wearily told a NEWSWEEK reporter Saturday night. The son of Mayor Daley, who held back Democratic votes in Cook County in 1960 until he knew what John F. Kennedy needed to win, knows how these things can go. "They're going to 'find' some more votes at the last minute and try to surprise everybody--make the margin bigger than expected." In Florida, the Republicans did find a few missing ballots. Halfway through the final day, with Bush's lead shrinking to about 400 votes, GOP counties reported revisions based on looking anew at overseas ballots--and Bush gained an additional 91 votes. Not a lot, but in the mad rush to the deadline, every vote counted.

Of course, Republicans were also deeply suspicious, worrying that the Democrats would "discover" just enough votes to propel their man into the lead. It didn't happen that way: with cameras in the counting room, local officials would have a hard time cheating even if they had wanted to. Exhaustion and stress were bigger roadblocks to getting a fair and certain result. With the vote absurdly close and the recounting rules muddy and varied, the only constant in the spectacle of picking the next president was stress. How the individuals involved handled it last week was at once revealing--and potentially decisive.

At Gore headquarters on Tuesday night, the wait was becoming unbearable. An unfavorable ruling from the Florida State Supreme Court would spell the end for the campaign. Campaign manager Donna Brazile was so stressed out that by early evening she had fled her office for a massage and acupuncture therapy. She was in her car shortly after 9 p.m. when she heard that the court's decision would be announced around 9:45. Driving to the nearest house with a friend and a TV set, she phoned her office to join a conference call with the Gore high command. There was absolute silence on the line while they waited. Then the news: the high court decreed that the manual recount in three heavily Democratic counties could go forward. Relief and elation all round--but tempered by the edgy realization that the emotional roller coaster was far from over. After a few minutes the candidate came on the line. Gore was businesslike, almost clinical, as he has been with his staff since Election Day. He peppered them with detailed questions. Had the court said anything about how to evaluate those critical chad--hanging, dimpled or pregnant? No one knew for sure. Call me back when you get it, said Gore. Click.

A few hours later, shortly before dawn, at his comfortable northwest Washington house, the man who wants Gore's present job--Dick Cheney--awoke with a strange but disturbingly familiar feeling in his chest. Cheney had already had three heart attacks and quadruple bypass surgery. He and his wife, Lynne, headed for the hospital. No big deal, Bush's spinners were insisting a few hours later. Not a heart attack, George W. Bush himself declared. Well, just a minor heart attack, came the sheepish correction by midafternoon. Cheney's family had been misled by the doctors' jargon.

Cheney himself dealt with the matter the same way he has coped with pressure during his long political career: by showing as little emotion as possible. No, stress had not caused the heart attack, he insisted. The gulf war had been tougher, he said, glad to remind reporters of his war leadership as secretary of Defense. Had he considered asking Bush to replace him as his running mate? "No," said Cheney. A dry, thin smile. "Not yet." Actually, Cheney's power is growing within Bush's camp. There were signs last week that Bush's once all-powerful campaign strategist, Karl Rove, was being edged aside by Cheney and Jim Baker-- top cabinet advisers to W's father. Cheney and Baker are constantly on the phone to candidate Bush.

In Florida, the state Supreme Court's decision to allow the hand-counting to go forward had galvanized Bush's troops. In a remarkably provocative (and, some would say, irresponsible) statement on Tuesday night, Baker essentially invited the Florida Legislature to disregard the court's decision and choose its own presidential electors. Early on Wednesday morning, an unmarked Winnebago pulled in among the massive TV trucks outside the Miami-Dade County government center. Within moments, about a hundred Republican volunteers from across the country, neatly dressed in suits or khakis and oxford shirts, some carrying walkie-talkies, began milling about, yelling slogans and waving signs. (bush won twice! "Hey, hey, yo, yo, dimpled chads have got to go!") Their commanders included Barry Jackson, chief of staff to Ohio Republican Congressman John Boehner, and Ken Mehlman, the national field director for the Bush campaign, who had flown in from Austin. (The day before, the operation had been set up by well-known Washington lobbyist and GOP operative Ed Gillespie.) Outside, a local Republican congressman, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, whipped up the crowd: "We would like America to know how the presidential election is being stolen at this time in Miami-Dade County!"

Inside the county government center, the three members of the Miami-Dade canvassing board were supposed to begin the laborious process of recounting by hand all of Miami-Dade's 655,000 ballots. The Miami-Dade officials had little enthusiasm for the task at hand. David Leahy, the county election supervisor, had been against the recounts from the beginning. The veteran of a series of election scandals in Miami, he had consistently argued that only a clear machine error was sufficient ground for a manual recount. "His view is, once you start with these recounts, you find all kinds of problems," a county official told NEWSWEEK. Leahy, 54, had some disagreeable personal memories of fraught elections: during a 1985 press conference called to discuss the hotly contested balloting for the mayor of Miami, Leahy had fainted. One of his colleagues on the canvassing board, County Judge Myriam Lehr, was also reluctant to forge ahead. An Orthodox Jew, she had, according to county officials, complained about having to work on the Jewish Sabbath. She may have felt other pressures as well: though officially nonpartisan, Lehr is married to a Republican activist, Miami lawyer Bruce Lehr, who two months ago was appointed to the Dade County Republican Executive Committee. (A spokeswoman for the Florida trial courts in Miami, Nan Markowitz, said that Lehr and her husband "do not discuss anything that goes on with the canvassing board.")

The board quickly decided that it was impossible to manually recount all of the county's ballots by the Sunday 5 p.m. deadline imposed by the Florida Supreme Court. They did agree to examine a smaller but still daunting number: 10,750 ballots rejected by the voting machines because of a "hanging chad" or some other tiny imperfection. And they decided to do the counting in a small, glass-enclosed office on the 19th floor.

The Republicans were incensed. They feared that if only "undercounted" ballots were examined, the results would be skewed to favor Gore. And they bitterly complained that the counting room had no seats for the public or press. The GOP's well-organized "observers" sprang into action. A congressional aide, Martin Torrey, alerted his boss, New York Rep. John Sweeney, who had just finished a TV interview nearby. "We should shut this thing down," replied Sweeney. "I'll be right over." Another New Yorker, Brendan Quinn, executive director of the state GOP, began urging demonstrators to head upstairs to the 19th floor. One of the shock troops was Duane Gibson, 35, an aide to Alaska GOP Congressman Don Young. Gibson, whose trip to Miami had been paid for by the Bush campaign, later told NEWSWEEK, "What was going on here angered me, and I thought, 'My gosh, they're taking those ballots to a closed area and they're not going to let us see them'." The angry demonstration, he insisted, was "spontaneous."

Pushing and shoving, waving arms and pumping fists, about 30 or 40 clean-cut-looking young Republicans poured into the 19th-floor reception area. Shouting "Let us in! Stop the count! Stop the fraud!" they banged on the double doors of the ballot-counting room. Joe Geller, the Democratic chairman of Miami-Dade, had the bad timing to arrive on the 19th floor at 10 a.m., just as tempers were flaring. Geller wanted to pick up a sample ballot to show an expert witness who planned to testify in the coming court challenges. Geller slid the ballot into his pocket. A woman suddenly yelled at the top of her lungs, "He stole a ballot!" Demonstrators surrounded Geller and began jostling him. The Democratic boss fled down the elevator. "It was classic Brownshirt tactics," he told NEWSWEEK. "It was totally a deliberate thing. How else did they know I was a lawyer? It was designed to intimidate people."

Inside the besieged ballot-counting room, the three members of the board of canvassers decided to abandon a hand recount. Were they intimidated? No, insisted board supervisor Leahy. "The only thing that forced [our hand] was a deadline that we didn't have before and which we felt we couldn't meet," he told NEWSWEEK. But not everyone was convinced. Why not call on help to finish the job? "They could have met the deadline if they wanted to meet the deadline," said Gwen Margolis, chair of the Dade County Commission and a Democrat. "I think they were frightened."

The Gore camp was apoplectic. The vice president had been counting on a manual recount in mostly Democratic Miami-Dade to put him over the top. The veep's backers railed about "rent-a-rioters," accusing the Republicans of intimidating the Miami-Dade election supervisors with bully-boy tactics. "The whiff of fascism," said New York Congressman Jerry Nadler, "was in the air." The charges were a little overwrought. Yes, the demonstrators were not exactly indignant local citizens exercising their right of free expression: many of the hottest heads were congressional aides down from Washington or Republican activists summoned from all over by e-mail from the Bush campaign. They had been provided with plane tickets and hotel rooms and ferried around in white minivans. They were handed placards to wave and T shirts to wear (Sore-Loserman) and led in chants ("Stop the fix!"). At the same time, there is no evidence that the Bush campaign intentionally orchestrated the shouting and scuffling on the 19th floor of the Miami-Dade government building. "We didn't call Austin or Tallahassee," said Terry Holt, a GOP congressional aide who was on hand. "This was a spontaneous expression of incredible frustration."

Still, there's no doubt that the GOP was determined to ratchet up public pressure. In Miami's volatile Cuban-American community, radio stations were breaking into their regular programming, airing protests that the county canvassing board was counting votes in Democratic precincts but not in Cuban areas, which are heavily Republican. In Little Havana, phones were ringing with tape-recorded Spanish-language messages ("The situation is urgent!") asking residents to join a rally protesting the canvassing board's decision. Up in Palm Beach, there were sightings of Donato Dalrymple, the "fisherman" who had helped rescue Elian Gonzalez and was photographed cradling the boy in his arms when the gun-toting Feds burst in last spring. Elian had been lost, seized by the Clinton administration in a dawn raid. ("I'm not here for the cameras," Dalrymple told reporters. "I'm just here to support George Bush.")

The anger and climate of fear was spreading into Florida's other contested counties. On Thanksgiving morning, Republicans watched with growing anger as the Broward County election supervisors used an extremely liberal standard to count virtually any dimpled ballot as a vote for Gore. Only the week before, the county had been using a far more restrictive standard--requiring two corners of a chad to be perforated before counting it as a vote. But the county switched standards in midstream, after getting a new legal ruling from deputy county attorney Andrew J. Meyers. Meyers, it turned out, had contributed to Gore's campaign and was married to a member of the Ft. Lauderdale law firm that has been representing the Democratic Party in all the election disputes. The Republicans saw blatant conflicts of interest. "I object to the way you're doing this," an agitated William Scherer, a local Republican lawyer, angrily told Judge Robert W. Lee, the chairman of the canvassing board. An obviously annoyed Lee summoned sheriff's deputies to approach Scherer. "Why don't you remove yourself before you are removed?" Lee demanded. Tempers cooled; Scherer remained. But the next morning someone hurled a brick at the suburban office of the Broward Democratic Party, shattering the glass storefront. Written in black letters on the brick was the inscription: we will not tolerate any illegal government.

The progress in Broward was slow and tortured. On Saturday, Scherer blew up again when the board suddenly discovered 78 votes from two precincts and more than 400 previously uncounted absentee ballots. The Republicans sent in heavyweight observers, including Govs. Christie Todd Whitman of New Jersey and Marc Racicot of Montana, but they were powerless to do more than join the ubiquitous former senator Bob Dole, who was tirelessly spinning reporters outside. The Democrats, too, had their own flying squad of famous pols, including war hero Bob Kerrey, who zealously defended his party from GOP charges that it had deprived soldiers of their right to vote.

Among Gore's own advisers, the mood remained combative and defiant. Gore's media adviser Bob Shrum, known for his smash-mouth style, was urging a fight to the last man. So was Donna Brazile. "This is war without bloodshed," she said, denouncing the Republicans for their "goddam guerrilla tactics." As for Gore and Lieberman? "Totally charged up," said an aide. Lieberman, who usually projects an air of sunny reasonableness, was, if anything, more intransigent than Gore, who is not known for giving up.

Gore's two top hands were tugged in surprisingly different directions. Warren Christopher, the former secretary of State brought in to preside over the post-election effort, was once expected to be the elder statesman who would gently deliver the bad news to Gore that the time had come for a graceful exit. But Christopher has been "kind of radicalized by this process," said one campaign aide. Christopher was taken aback when his opposing Wise Man, James Baker, virtually invited the Florida Legislature to overturn a Gore victory on a recount. Christopher has "become really pissed off at Baker," says this aide. "He thinks he's been arrogant and presumptuous. And with Christopher, the absolutely worst thing you can be is arrogant and presumptuous." Bill Daley, Gore's campaign chairman, was expected to play hardball, taking after his legendary father. But perhaps because of Hizzoner's reputation for vote-stealing, his son is unsure how far the fight should go. "Daley's a pro," said a Gore aide. "But he's struggling with this."

Bush has stayed farther from the fray than Gore. He has walked his ranch, planned his cabinet and spent some quality time with his pets and his twin daughters, who are home from college. Yet he is not immune from the stresses and strains. The boil that erupted on his face the day after the election may have been a coincidence. Or it may have been a perfectly natural reaction to seeming to have won the presidency of the United States and then having it taken away about an hour later. On Sunday, Bush made it clear he is just as determined as Gore to claim victory. Neither man is likely to give up until he absolutely has to.