What the world watched was a GOP melee. When Geller walked out of the room with a sample ballot, the crowd accused him of stealing a real one and responded as if he had just nabbed a baby for its organs. Geller says he was pushed by two dozen protesters screaming, "I'm gonna take you down!" Luis Rosero, a Democratic observer, claims he was punched and kicked. Republicans dispute the charges, but video cameras caught scenes of activism that had morphed into menace. The organizers in the RV outside, who GOP protesters have told TIME were led by hardball Washington strategist Roger Stone, had phone banks churning out calls to Miami Republicans, urging them to storm downtown. (Stone could not be reached for comment.) One of them was a fire fighter, Rob Eltus, 45: "What Americans are finally seeing is Republicans fed up."
But what really may have given the canvassing board pause was a sight that strikes fear in any Florida politician, especially elected Dade County judges like Lawrence King, the board's chairman: angry Cuban voters. They marched on the Clark Center after a conservative radio station, Radio Mambí, broadcast interviews with two Cuban-American GOP members of Congress, Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who decried the board's moves. For Miami's Cubans, almost 80 percent of whom voted for Bush, this election is mostly about avenging Elian Gonzalez. One of Judge King's paid political consultants is Armando Gutierrez, the man who distributed the Orwellian videotape of Elian denouncing his father last spring.
Democrats last week called for a federal probe of the incident. Sources close to Democratic Miami-Dade mayor Alex Penelas tell TIME that a GOP intermediary, Miami political consultant Herman Echevarria at the behest of state Republican leaders tried to approach Penelas Wednesday morning to see if the mayor "might talk" to the canvassing board. The sources say Penelas preferred to stay out of it. (Dade elections supervisor David Leahy, a board member, also works for Penelas.) Both Echevarria and Florida GOP chairman Al Cardenas deny such contact. But Penelas, a Cuban American, is seen as vulnerable by GOP leaders because he has been estranged from the Gore campaign since the Elian debacle. Either way, Democrats are asking what the board said and with whom they met while holed up in the Clark Center waiting out the riot.
With reporting by Kathie Klarreich/Miami