Who's Winning the P.R. Game?

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Still tussling: Al Gore and George W. Bush

Americans never really stop voting, and politicians never really stop campaigning — the pollsters see to that. But this is the first time that two presidential candidates have lasted this long into November, and while this whole mess looks to be firmly in the hands of the lawyering hordes, public opinion is still the golden calf before which Al Gore and George W. Bush must bow down.

Because for the winner, the next four years are going to be tough enough without getting inaugurated as President Scrooge. And so there is a public relations war.

Gore's salvo Wednesday night was timed perfectly, not just because it interrupted the network news, but because he had a pretty darn good idea that the Floriday Supreme Court would do exactly what it did this afternoon: approve the continuation of the hand-count. Which is exactly what Palm Beach County started doing within minutes of the ruling. First move to Gore.

Al rolls the dice

Here's what Gore was thinking. He knew that the Florida Supreme Court had earlier in the day upheld the right of counties to hold manual recounts. And he also knew that manual recounting holds a certain intuitive "will of the people" appeal that dovetails very neatly with his avowed populism. And so, in an ambush address cleverly timed to get live feeds on the network newscasts, lines like this were rolling across his Teleprompter:

"This is a time to respect every voter and every vote. This is a time to honor the true will of the people... There is a simple reason that Florida law and the law in many other states calls for a careful check by real people of the machine results in elections like this one. The reason? Machines can sometimes misread or fail to detect the way ballots are cast..."

Classic Gore — explanatory and a little condescending, and hard to disagree with without sounding like a vote-suppressing meany. And with that justification out of the way, Gore could get to the endgame portion of the evening — because at this point, who doesn't want an endgame?

The proposal that Bush could and did refuse

Gore laid out two hand-count proposals — one for including the three counties, one for hand counting statewide. Both, he figured, would put him over the top, and both, he suspected, would be unacceptable to the Bush camp, who had spent the last five days insisting that hand counts were less accurate than machine counts. And Proposal 2 not only has an appealing air of fairness but takes the Republicans' potent "cherry-picking" argument off the table.

The key p.r. phrase: "complete hand counts already begun in Palm Beach County, Dade County and Broward County." This was a virtual fib — apart from some exploratory counts in a couple of precincts, Palm Beach isn't counting yet; Dade declined to start; and Broward was forced into it by the Democrats. But "already begun" was worth the risk, because it makes Bush sound like he wants to silence something "the people" have already started. And Gore closed it with exactly the words all Americans want to hear: "I would also be willing to abide by that result and agree not to take any legal action to challenge that result."

And then he topped it all off with a bit of out-of-the-box statesmanship offer: A peace summit, so that both candidates might "improve the tone of our dialogue in America."

Bill Clinton couldn't have stolen the other guy's high ground any better.

Bush's Riposte

And Bush? Bush ran on "trusting the people" and giving power to "the local folks," and these days finds himself in the uncomfortable position of trusting machines and suing in a federal court to stop the counts, when he's all about states' rights. Republicans are also a bit boxed in — having decried the unreliability of hand counts for days and sued to stop them, they didn't have much choice but to pass on the statewide count. Which made Bush's job (once he hustled up from Crawford and got on the air at 10:15 from the governor's mansion) pretty simple: Find a graceful way to hold the line.

He did pretty well. After an awkward opening thank-you to his supporters (not the stuff of statesmanship; Gore's boilerplate about a "test of our democracy" was much more above the fray), Bush settled in and got to work on why no further counting was needed.

"As Americans have watched on television, they have seen for themselves that manual counting, with individuals making subjective decisions about voter intent, introduces human error and politics into the vote-counting process. Each time these voting cards are handled the potential for errors multiplies. Additional manual counts of votes that have been counted and recounted will make the process less accurate, not more so." A bit presumptious about what the American people are seeing, but well summed up.

But Bush's statement was emotionally all "finality" and about holding firm behind a schedule that appeals to America's growing sense of impatience. "This is precisely why the laws of the state of Florida have deadlines for certification of the election vote... 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." Nice bit of suspense, even if Bush has no doubt whatsoever that the absentee ballots will add to his official 300-vote lead.

Dubya nixes the mano-a-mano thing

And as for the peace summit, Bush played tough guy and politely put off any meeting until after the result. Keep it simple. Keep it on schedule. And keep it the way it is — they won't even ask for a recount in Iowa. It's a truly conservative angle.

The positions are now hardened. The fighting is now almost completely transferred to the courts. And Gore and Bush have left themselves little else to do besides sit back and wait. As the thing drags on, will the public see hand counts as properly populist (Gore), suspiciously sloppy (Bush), or just not worth their time (Bush again)?

The pollsters will, of course, be there to tell us what we think, and of course to tell Bush and Gore what we think. Wednesday night, the two men began their fight for our approval in earnest — because the winner will be a lot better off with it than without it. The longer this drags on, even party allegiances may be up for grabs, as the voters formerly known as "undecideds" throw up their hands anew and just beg for a winner, no matter which one it is.

Which works out fine, because it looks like it's the lawyers who'll get to pick.