Why Gore Fights On And On And...

It was less than three minutes to air, and no one could find Al Gore. Everything was ready for last Monday's speech kicking off the All Al All the Time media offensive, aimed at convincing the public that the 2000 presidential election wasn't over yet. The living room of his Naval Observatory residence was lit for television and bristling with American flags, now the backdrop of choice in the post-campaign air war. But as the seconds slipped away, no Al. As panicked aides prepared to tell the networks they weren't ready, he finally emerged near the podium, oblivious to the frenzy he'd triggered.

This is the Gore his advisers like to talk about: focused, unflappable, resolute when those around him are losing faith. At exactly 8:55, he stepped to the microphones and urged that all the votes in Florida be counted. "If the people in the end do not choose me, so be it," he said, briskly marching through his text to wedge a six-minute speech into a five-minute slot. Even on days when the Battle of Florida starts to look increasingly like his own private Alamo, Gore remains unswerving in the belief that he won the state, and the White House, on Election Day. But Gore's faith is in more than the numbers. As he sees it, the presidency has never been an "if," only a "when," a reflection of the sense of destiny that he has carried through a quarter century in public life. One longtime Tennessee friend said that should his sprawling legal challenge ultimately fail, the 2004 campaign would begin the day after he conceded. As another put it recently: "He believes that he is on history's agenda."

Gore's sense of mission is driven by a fierce competitive instinct, the legacy of his politician-parents. They taught him about the honor of public service, and also about what it took to win. And they yearned to see him in high office, pushing him into a first presidential run when he was far too young and raw--not yet 40. His sheer will to prevail, on vivid display over the last few extraordinary weeks, is no surprise to friends and colleagues. Harvard roommate John Tyson remembers the "out of the blue" challenges for anything from push-ups to beer chugging. "He was always, 'I bet I can beat you at the last thing you did'," Tyson says. Gore's palms would turn black and blue trying to beat his friend, an All-Ivy defensive back, at handball. What did he say when he lost? Best two out of three, says Tyson.

Yet even Gore's granite certainty is showing cracks under the pressure of the last three weeks. In interviews he breezily dismisses questions about the many what-ifs and might-have-beens that could have delivered a victory on Nov. 7. "I don't lie awake at night. I sleep like a baby," he said last week. But Gore also has a long memory for perceived slights and injustices, and privately he's begun making mental notes on whom, and what, to blame if he comes up short. He frets about having lost Tennessee, where an additional 79,000 votes would have given him the presidency. With the chants of demonstrators on Massachusetts Avenue ("Get out of Cheney's house!") audible from his dining-room command post, he has brooded about the Bush team's ability to run out the clock in court, or what he regards as the ruthlessness of Republicans, whose well-financed attack machine ended his father's Senate career in a vicious campaign 30 years ago this fall. "They'll do anything" is the refrain familiar to aides. It is also, of course, what Gore's GOP antagonists say about him.

He is back on a full campaign footing--minus the travel--as time runs short. There is fund-raising for the recount effort, headed by longtime moneyman Peter Knight, a daily quest to "win" the 24-hour news cycles and assiduous attention to message. "Count all the votes" has replaced "risky tax scheme" and "lockbox" as the carefully chosen mantra. Eight times in his brief Monday-night address, Gore used the words "count" and "vote" in various configurations ("When votes are cast, we count them... Great efforts have been made to prevent the counting of these votes... so long as all of their votes are counted..."). If that carries the whiff of market-tested rhetoric, it is no coincidence. While Gore aides insist they've done no such research, pollster Stan Greenberg is a fixture at strategy meetings. Gore was also soaking up "free media" at an October pace last week. He gave interviews to all three nightly network newscasts, CNN and NBC's "Today," as well as off-the-record briefings to executives of selected print outlets. He got his message out, but not without some classic Gorean moments. The Sigh resurfaced briefly, and genuine sentiment sometimes came across as smarmy overreaching. "I mean, I'm really in love with our democracy," he gushed to NBC's Claire Shipman. "That sounds corny, I know, but believe me, that is the way I feel."

Inside the bunker, there is a rhythm to the days. Armed with telephone, laptop and BlackBerry wireless e-mail, Gore begins the morning at his dining-room table or the library and begins reaching out to hold his support in place, talking to congressional allies and personally recruiting top-tier surrogates like former New York governor Mario Cuomo. At midmorning, there is usually a conference call with members of his legal and political teams, where the thorniest questions of the day are hashed out. A former newspaper reporter, Gore often attacks big problems with a journalist's sensibility--running down tips, cross-checking sources, looking for the larger picture. His appetite for information is almost unlimited, and he has spent large portions of his days and nights immersed in the story of his fight for survival, scouring newspapers from Orlando to London for any nuggets to help his cause. "He's someone who by definition needs to be totally engaged," says one senior adviser.

Gore's closest counsel remains his family. As they were in the campaign, wife Tipper, daughters Kristin and Karenna Gore Schiff and brother-in-law Frank Hunger are his most important sounding boards, followed closely by running mate Joe Lieberman. Lieberman's own combative instincts--and a deep sense of personal investment in Florida, where he campaigned extensively--have made him among the most militant of the inner circle. "A true believer," says one top aide. Beyond them is a rolling cast of elder statesmen and consultants, led by former campaign chairman Bill Daley, former secretary of State Warren Christopher, adman Carter Eskew and strategist Bob Shrum.

One highly knowledgeable Democrat who has worked with Gore for years is staying conspicuously silent. Bill Clinton can rattle off the recent political history of every county in Florida, and is steeped in the arcana of vote counting and constitutional law. But after a campaign in which his often unflattering views on Gore's candidacy spilled into print, friends say that the president has been remarkably disciplined about keeping his thoughts to himself. One rare exception was last week, when two Canadian reporters cornered him at a book-signing party for former national-security adviser Tony Lake. A subsequent story quoted him as saying (what else?), "If the votes were counted, Al Gore would carry the state."

Aides have counseled Clinton that remaining above the fray helps his vice president's cause by keeping the public calm and reinforcing the notion that there is no crisis. Though Daley remains his main contact with the Gore operation, their conversations are less frequent. Relations between Clinton and Gore, chilled by the Lewinsky scandal and the difficult election, may be thawing a bit. The two sat down for 20 minutes last week in the Oval Office.

But by all accounts, this remains a one-man show. Ideas for many public appearances and tactical moves (the pledge not to meddle with Bush electors, the offer to meet with Bush) have originated with Gore. "Gore is calling the shots so much, it's like there's this high command that ends up mostly talking to itself," says one top Democratic operative who has been in on many of the deliberations.

For those who wonder what makes Al run, and run, the past provides some answers. In a boarding-school contest to see who could sleep the latest and still make it to morning chapel, most of Gore's St. Albans classmates employed clip-on ties to save time. Gore triumphed by going a step further, cutting the back out of a white dress shirt so that he could don it like a surgeon's gown, saving him the crucial seconds it would have taken to fasten the buttons.

A more telling, and pertinent, illustration of Gore's fight-to-the-last-breath style is the collapse of his first presidential campaign, in 1988. The central premise of his dark-horse candidacy--that his credentials as a moderate Southerner made him the strongest Democrat for November--was demolished on Super Tuesday. Jesse Jackson racked up a series of historic primary victories in the old Confederacy, while Michael Dukakis captured Texas and Florida. Gore didn't do badly; he took seven states in the border South and West. But it was not enough to sustain fund-raising or serious press attention. Pros inside his campaign knew it was over.

Gore had a different view. Urged on by his parents, he went everywhere and nowhere, losing a string of primaries from Kansas to Puerto Rico. He borrowed $1 million for a futile last stand in New York, where he teamed up with Mayor Ed Koch to pander to Jewish voters by attacking Jackson. He finished a distant third, and spent several years undoing the damage to his reputation.

Gore dismisses questions about how the 2000 endgame may damage his chances in 2004. But at least one consultant involved in postelection strategy says it has become an increasing concern. At what point does Gore become inseparable from his "Saturday Night Live" parody, the guy who wanted to give two closing arguments at the end of the debate? "It hangs over all these decisions," says one insider. "How could it not?" Handicapping presidential prospects four years in advance is risky business. But if Gore is ultimately forced from the stage this time, he will still leave as the winner of the 2000 popular vote. He will also be regarded by at least a chunk of the electorate as someone who was cheated out of the White House. For someone with Gore's sense of personal destiny, those are powerful moral licenses. It is difficult to imagine that he wouldn't look seriously at trying again.

Winning the nomination again would be another matter. A new generation of Democrats--like North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (a vice presidential finalist) and perhaps even Hillary Rodham Clinton--might want their turn. And even with the numbers he put up in 2000, Gore would still have to explain to his party how, after being handed a booming domestic economy and a world at relative peace, he managed to blow it.

Perhaps the most formidable obstacle would be closest to home. Tipper Gore has never tried to hide her ambivalence about public life. She deferred two careers (photojournalism and psychology) to help her husband up the political ladder, and was left on her own, more often than not, to raise their children and protect them from the Washington glare. Along the way she waged her own battle with depression. "Let's be real," says one close friend. "She didn't sign up for it." After a grueling 1988 campaign and their son's near-fatal car accident a year later, it was Tipper's objections that weighed heavily in Gore's decision to pass up the 1992 presidential race. All the more reason Gore will do everything in his power to win now. He may believe that he's on history's agenda, but in 2004 he could well be dealing with a spouse who no longer has history on hers.