For Bush, No Way Out But Victory

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The candidates comment on the Florida Supreme Court ruling

George W. Bush, who has been calling for an end to the Florida election since he won it the first two times, still has a couple of ways to get to the White House but no good way to walk away.

Bush came out for reporters in Austin at noon Wednesday to give Dick Cheney a medical thumbs-up and deliver a folksy version of James Baker's speech from the night before. "Make no mistake, the court rewrote the laws," Bush said. "It changed the rules and it did so after the election was over." He hinted at the constitutional challenge — and the legislative one. He called on Al Gore to help him urge that military overseas ballots be generously counted. He even braved a few questions afterward, deferring all matters legal to Baker down in Tallahassee.

He also indicated there was not going to be any surrender of one inch of ground — not to the courts, not to Al Gore. Not even to the reality that the rules of the game have changed, no matter if Bush ever finds a way to change them back.

Will Bush Have a Case Come Monday?

"I believe if there is a fair and accurate count of the votes in Florida, we will prevail," Bush said. But if the current hand counts go on, "there will be no fair and accurate result." The implication is familiar: Florida already counted, twice, and Bush already won, twice. But time, politics and an activist court are fast putting those victories in the rear-view mirror. Where does that leave Bush?

Fighting for military ballots — and against dimples — every step of the way from now until Sunday. Win on the numbers then, and they've got a Monday-morning case for Gore to quit. Lose, and they can go back to court, to the U.S. Supremes, to the Florida legislature.

But what if Monday morning is the day America finally gets impatient? Gore, upon whom party pressure to concede has been strongest (and who, as a former Washington senator himself, heeds it the most) is the now the candidate most in touch with his sense of finality. If on Tuesday night he began clearing the way for a magnanimous victory, he was also clearing the way for a graceful defeat.

Gore Hopes He Has Good-Looking Dimples

"I don't know what those ballots will show," Gore said. "I don't know whether Governor Bush or I will prevail. But we do know that our democracy is the winner tonight."

"Dimpled chad" are two words Gore has never uttered in public, and therein lies the wiggle room. He can let the Democratic canvassing boards do their best for him, and turn superlawyer Boies loose on Harris and the paper pregnancies. And by Monday, he can loudly credit democracy and justice with either his triumph or his demise, depending on the numbers and the mood of Democrats on the Hill.

Thanks to an activist court, some political ironies and an extraordinary election that was bound to change some rules mid-game, Bush's options are considerably narrower. If he wins on the hanging chads, he can demand a concession. If he loses on the dimples, he'll have to either make himself a liar by surrendering or make himself a nuisance by fighting a scorched-earth war into December.

No wonder Dick Cheney's having chest pains.