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Gore's Gambit, Bush's Brush-Off

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ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP

Gore supporters display stickers calling for the continuation of the hand count

Al Gore made his move, George W. Bush parried, and now the never-ending presidential election of 2000 is back on the road that leads through the courts and into December.

It was Gore that went live on the evening news with a lawyer-free, two-pronged offer that was the best PR coup of his very long campaign: Let the hand counts go on in the three Democratic counties — or hold hand-counts statewide — and include them in the certified results. Loser takes his legal team and goes home.

Bush found the offer very easy to refuse. In his own presidential-looking televised address four hours later (which at least was in time to make the morning papers) the Texas governor said, in few words: No thanks.

"Everyone in Florida has had their vote counted. Those votes have been counted a second time. And tonight they have been certified. And we do not know yet who has won." Hand-counting, Bush said, "introduces human error and politics into the vote-counting process." A statewide hand-count, he said, would only be "compounding the error by extending a flawed process statewideů This would be neither fair nor accurate, it would be arbitrary and chaotic."

Bush then made his PR pitch for the Katherine Harris view. "Not for Vice President Gore or me, but for America this process must have a point of conclusion. America and the world must know who will be the next president," he said. "This is precisely why the laws of the state of Florida have deadlines for certification of the election vote. One of them came last night, and tonight, Florida's chief election official and the state's election canvassing commission have reaffirmed it as their responsibilities require."

"The next and final deadline comes Friday at midnight, when overseas absentee ballots must have been received to be counted in Florida. I don't know who these ballots will support and neither does Vice President Gore."

OK, hold on. Bush obviously assumes that the absentee ballots will only add to his 300-vote officially certified lead. Gore obviously assumes that hand-counts — whether they're in three counties or sixty-seven — will put him over the top. This hasn't gone on long enough for either candidate to bet against the odds.

And neither man would have made his statement without a little legal confidence. Gore went out armed with Wednesday's Florida Supreme Court decision declaring the hand counts legal. (Bush's lawyers have taken that to federal appeals court in Atlanta, and it probably won't stop there.) And Bush had the curt statement of Harris, who is turning into his personal Janet Reno, to lean on. Harris held a 9:30 p.m. press conference to declare that she had duly considered the three counties' appeal to have their manual counts included in the official tally, and had found them decidedly wanting. The certification would be finished Saturday as scheduled. Gore's lawyers were on the case immediately.

Stubbornly on opposite sides of the Rorshach test that is Florida election law, these guys sound determined to let William Rehnquist have the final say. Bush even declined Gore's offer of a pre-endgame peace summit. "Once this election is over, I would be glad to meet with Vice President Gore, and I join him in pledging that regardless of who wins after this weekend's final count, we will work together to unite our great country."

"The outcome of this election will not be the result of deals or efforts to mold public opinion," Bush finished. "The outcome of this election will be determined by the votes and by the law." Especially, it seems now, by the law.

9:30 p.m. ET Wednesday

Al Gore has made his move. In a hastily arranged — and hastily delivered — 6:45 p.m. press conference from his residence, the vice president grabbed every bit of high ground he could from the Republicans, offering not only an endgame but a peace summit, and all in time to get a live feed on all three network newscasts and lead every newspaper in the country come morning.

Gore's offer, in short, to the governor: Let's count 'em all and I'll drop all the lawsuits and we'll both abide by the result. And hey — let's be statesmen about this.

There's sure to be a paragraph in those newspaper stories about Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris' own press conference two hours later, in which she held the line on hand recounts: No county had sufficiently justified its reason for a manual recount, and therefore the certification process will end Saturday as scheduled. No deal, Al.

But when George W. Bush makes his planned 10:15 rejoinder — talk about getting out-maneuvered — it won't be enough to lean on Harris and her reading of the law. He'll have to find a way to defuse Gore's little masterpiece if he wants to keep the public on his side.

Gore began with the usual boilerplate about how this was a test of democracy, and followed with a classic Gore-as-schoolteacher explanation of why machines sometimes make mistakes. ("Machines can sometimes misread or fail to detect the way ballots are cast...") He insisted that those mistakes can be caught in manual recounts, recounts that are "accepted far and wide as the best way to know the true intentions of the voters."

Next, the offer: "First, we should complete hand counts already begun in Palm Beach County, Dade County and Broward County to determine the true intentions of the voters based on an objective evaluation of their ballots." (Gore misstatement alert: Palm Beach County has not yet begun to count, and Dade County has actually decided not to. Broward, of course, had also decided not to but was forced to reconsider by the Democrats.) The results of those recounts would be added to final tally — and Gore drops all his lawsuits and both sides abide by the result.

Then, a counteroffer, a kind of sweetener, in case Bush is reluctant: Manually recount all 67 Florida counties, which "we believe... can be completed within seven days of the time it starts." He'll abide by that result too. Brilliant — two reasonable-sounding solutions to a mess Americans are wearying of, and both of them lawyer-free.

And then Gore hit his silent rival with the statesmanship sucker punch. "Now, second, I propose that Governor Bush and I meet personally, one-on-one, as soon as possible, before the vote count is finished, not to negotiate, but to improve the tone of our dialogue in America." Not only before the outcome, but afterward too, wherever Bush wants, so that the pair can "unite the country behind the winner as soon as this process is completed." Get it? Unite, not divide? Fade out: They walk arm in arm into the sunset.

Somewhere in Asia, Bill Clinton, the Hannibal of p.r. coups like this one, is cackling with delight. Because Al Gore will get his day as America's bigger man, the first to personally make any meaningful proposal in front of the nation. Bush is nowhere to be seen; he scheduled and then canceled a press availability Wednesday morning. Now Bush will be hard-pressed to stand up and turn both proposals down without sounding like he's trying to silence Florida voters by stopping recounts "already begun."

The advantage of Gore's plan is its apparent simplicity and fairness. The disadvantage is... seven — count'em, seven — more days. Gore has obviously now given up on challenging the butterfly ballots. That is his peace offering to George W. And because of the way the courts are looking, this may be as good a deal as Bush is gonna get, and if Gore loses it and walks away, he could leave town a political saint — or a political martyr.

5:00 p.m. ET Wednesday

The Florida Supreme Court says the hand counts can go on.

That's a big loss for Katherine Harris and the Bush campaign, which was hoping to have them declared in violation of Florida law. (The federal appeals court in Atlanta has agreed to hear the case, by the way.) The Florida high court also denied Harris's request to have all election-related lawsuits consolidated in the local circuit court in Tallahassee (something else the Bush campaign wanted), but said nothing about taking the bundle on themselves, which was Warren Christopher's proffer to the Bush camp earlier in the day. (Christopher's reason for proposal may just have something to do with the seven justices' Democratic lineage, which may also explain why Harris wanted the same consolidation in circuit court.)

Baker: What's Taking You so Long?

But getting rejected by the courts works pretty well for the Bush p.r. effort. Bush surrogate-in-chief James Baker emerged at 4:20 Wednesday afternoon to take back the "speedy end to all this" mantle from the Democrats, and made the rather logical argument that if Democrats wanted to hand-count those ballots so badly — in selected Democratic-leaning counties, mind you — why haven't they started yet? The Bushies tried to stop them once in federal court, and lost. They tried to stop them in the state Supreme Court, and lost. Volusia County briskly hand-counted all its votes before the Tuesday deadline; what's stopping Palm Beach?

When Baker took the stage, he brought lawyers with him, but his message was aimed right at the masses: The other guys are full of it and are trying to steal this from under you, the voter.

The situation according to Baker: Manual recounts in six Republican counties? Nah. Seminole County was just feeding some rejected ballots through the machine a second time.

Who's clogging the process with litigation? They are. The Gore camp is responsible for 12 lawsuits, the Bush camp only one, bragged Baker — and they lost it.

Who's delaying the process? The Gore camp, Baker said, is "unwilling to make any commitment to accept finality in this election unless it receives the outcome it wants"; they make "false statements to divert attention"; and as for the illegality of the Palm Beach ballot, "that charge has faded now in the face of the finding that the ballot is legal."

Baker also pointed out that Warren Christopher's counteroffer earlier Wednesday — to let the Florida Supreme Court decide the standards, legality and deadline for hand recounts — only proved that standards were in fact sorely lacking.

To Count by Hand or Not Count by Hand? That is the Question

So at the end of Wednesday, the Commotion by the Ocean was right back where it started. Hand counts are legal, if not necessarily acceptable past the long-past Tuesday deadline. The Bush camp wants to stop them, the Gore camp wants to make sure they matter. Broward County is counting again, under heavy pressure from the Democratic party. And Palm Beach County, for reasons known only to its canvassing board, wants very badly to count its 400,000-odd ballots by hand, but hasn't started yet.

Which brings us back to the Florida Supremes, which moved ahead, but did not rule, on a request by Palm Beach County that it clarify conflicting rulings on the recounts from Secretary of State Katherine Harris and Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth, a Democrat. The court set a deadline for early Thursday for legal briefs in that lawsuit, and also agreed to allow the Gore campaign and Broward County to join in.

The Mysterious Passivity of Palm Beach County

But why hasn't Palm Beach started counting yet? Broward has gone ahead. Palm Beach has already voted to count. They've already been given leeway by a local judge to count those "dimpled chads" any way they want. Fifty election workers have been standing by for two days. And now the Supreme Court of Florida has turned them loose.

The canvassing board held a brief public meeting Wednesday night to ask that very question — and came up with no discernible answer. As beleaguered board member Carol Roberts put it: "So far, no court's told us we can't count, and we're not counting." (The count, by the way, could take a week.)

When the cameras turned away, they were discussing reconvening at 1 p.m. Thursday.

3:00 p.m. ET Wednesday

With the 2 p.m. deadline for "Why I Want a Recount" notes come and gone, Florida secretary of state Katherine Harris has received letters of justification from Palm Beach County, Broward County, Miami-Dade County, and — who knew? — Collier County, in the Naples area.

In Broward, the most Democratic county in the state, a moving van full of ballots has pulled up to the Broward County Emergency Operations Center (built for hurricanes, but this'll do), and now the county that tested and rejected a manual recount (and then was sued by the Democrats to reconsider) is about to start playing the chad game.

Miami-Dade, at last report, also voted against a hand recount after running a sample count and finding only tiny discrepancies. But they're good to go, in case the Democrats leave a horse's head in some canvassing board member's bed.

Collier, a predominantly Republican county, was apparently going through the ballots and found 24 absentee ballots that had been mistakenly left in their envelopes, and one that was thought to be a primary ballot but may not be. Officials there just want to include them in the result.

And Palm Beach? Well, Palm Beach got their letter in on time, and they're eager to start, but they're afraid of lawyers. With the "butterfly ballot" plaintiffs fighting for airtime, the canvassing board is waiting for some resolution of the legal actions — Harris's and Bush's in the Supreme Court, Bush's in state court — seeking to prevent them. This county is now Most Likely to Drag This Out Into Next Week.

And from the candidates? The only photo-op of the day was Dick and Lynne Cheney making a stop at Bush campaign headquarters. Cheney turned all "specific questions" over to James Baker.

12:00 p.m. ET Wednesday

Warren Christopher has a proposal of his own; shockingly enough, it involves lawyers. The former secretary of state and Gore surrogate-in-chief emerged Wednesday just before noon to accuse Katherine Harris of stalling for time and to try to claim the "let's end this" mantle for the Democrats.

Christopher wants to let the Florida Supreme Court handle all election-related lawsuits and ask it to rule "whether hand counts now ongoing are appropriate under Florida law, and if so, what is the deadline for their completions." Christopher is also looking for a statewide standardization of all matters "chad." But his main point may have been to say that Harris's way of doing things, in lower courts, "would serve only to delay once again the counting of the votes."

Well, that's what it's all about — the counting of the votes. The Bush stance is that they've already been counted not once but twice, the Gore stance that one more, by hand, ought to do it. With Broward County and Palm Beach County waiting for the go-ahead in counts that Gore camper David Boies said "would only take a week," the Democrat argument is now, "why don't we just get started?"

To which the Bushies say (though they've been quiet Wednesday — a response to Christopher is in the works): It's a messy and unreliable process, and possibly unconstitutional — and besides, we're only up by 300. Can't we stop now?

11:00 a.m. ET Wednesday

How does this thing end? Florida secretary of state Katherine Harris went to the state Supreme Court on Wednesday and made two requests — that all election-related lawsuits be organized and heard by state court in Leon County in Tallahassee, and that all hand recounts be stopped in the meantime. The high court hasn't even decided whether it will listen. (Follow the filings at www.flcourts.org)

George W. Bush's lawyers not only got in on that one but headed all the way to Atlanta and told the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that they plan to appeal Monday's decision by a federal judge that the hand counts could go forward.

And they have a new target: Broward County, after initially halting its hand recount, has decided that machine error was in fact responsible for a four-vote Gore-ward swing in a sample hand count. Wednesday, the two Democrats on the canvassing board outvoted the Republican, and a county-wide hand count is on in a county that went 2-1 for Gore.

Meanwhile, the specter of a long and muddy recount by massive Miami-Dade County has been removed — by the county itself. Local officials made a hand count of three precincts Tuesday night, found a six-vote gain for Gore, and called the whole thing off.

Meanwhile, Palm Beach County seems determined to be the make-or-break element in this whole affair. After planning to begin a hand count early Wednesday morning, the county canvassing board — a bit embroiled in scandal itself after Republicans accused board member Carol Roberts, a Democrat, of taking some "chads" literally into her own hands — is waiting to hear from the circuit court how they should deal with "pregnant chads." Is a dimple an intended vote? Or does the lack of a puncture mean a lack of a vote?

And is it too much to ask for voters to have sufficient passion to make a hole in a piece of perforated cardboard?


For Tuesday's play-by-play, click here