At last his own man

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Lots of politicians lose elections, but few get a chance to show a truer self in the act of losing. It was not until the five weeks after Election Day that Al Gore was able to prove he was indeed what he had declared himself to be in his Democratic Convention speech: his own man.

For the first time since he began his slog for the presidency, Gore wasn't trying to convince people to like him; he was trying to persuade them he was right. And he wasn't trying to win their votes; he was claiming the votes he believed he had already won. So Gore finally lived up to his own billing: the candidate who is not afraid to choose "the hard right over the easy wrong," the fighter who doesn't shrink in the ring. The hard, joyless endeavor of winning votes had been "like crawling over broken glass," in the words of an aide. It seemed the least that fate owed him at the end was, if not a blessed victory, then a quick, clean defeat. But in the past five weeks, "the situation, the significance, the stakes all brought out the best in him," says Ron Klain, who helped lead the legal effort in Florida. Gore finally was running the campaign his way.

That meant the flaws and weaknesses of the effort were Gore's as well. For all his tenacity, Gore also flailed, fearful of closing any option as he gobbled up information and explored all his possibilities. He indulged his fascination with complexity and went in many directions at once. In retrospect, he might have been better off simply calling for a statewide recount by hand, as some of his strategists recommended in the first days after the election; instead, he picked a handful of reliably Democratic counties in which to make his stand. He might have moved more quickly to the contest phase of the election; instead, he used vast firepower on the early recounts that preceded Secretary of State Katherine Harris' certification. What Gore created was "a formless, shapeless thing," concedes an adviser. "You have to give structure to a situation like this."

And consistency as well. But just as it had been difficult to predict during his presidential campaign which Gore you might see on any given morning, his argument for winning Florida was protean. He praised the hardworking Palm Beach canvassers one day and sued them the next. He wanted to count every vote, but countenanced his supporters' efforts to get thousands thrown out. He vowed to honor voter intent, a goal that lost some of its nobility as the nation saw how many kinds of guesswork that would take. So uneven was Gore's footing in the public relations war that one often quoted adviser made a practice of instantly deleting the daily talking points the campaign would send him by e-mail.

But it would have been difficult for even the most agile politician to wage a war in such unfamiliar territory, especially on so many fronts: waging an uphill battle with the legal system, closing the ranks of a Democratic Party whose support for him had always been tenuous and quelling the perception that George W. Bush had won the election - one thing Gore's advisers blame on the television networks' erroneous declaration of Bush's win on election night. Just as difficult, Gore strategist Carter Eskew says, were "the odds of fighting a system that has a perhaps understandable desire for finality and conclusion."

Yet Gore was in fuller command than he had ever been, drawing his circle in the dining room of the Naval Observatory tighter around him. By the end, former Secretary of State Warren Christopher and campaign chairman Bill Daley seemed to weary of the war for which they had been drafted. But Gore's family stayed there as it always had, maybe even more, maybe too much. "Up there, Karenna's vote counts the same as Warren Christopher's," an angry strategist grumbled about Gore's eldest child and most dedicated warrior. Though Karenna was teary-eyed at her father's party after the concession speech, an attendee recalls her joking "Count me in!" when talk turned to organizing an effort to defeat Jeb Bush in the 2002 Florida gubernatorial race. Her father may have sounded conciliatory, "but I'm not there yet," she said.

Tipper had never been able to hide her ambivalence during the campaign, and as her husband gave his concession on Wednesday, hers seemed the only genuine smile in the family. But while the fight was on, aides say, she too was among the hawks, delving into the strategic details as she never had before and faxing news clippings of even the smallest developments in Florida to her friends.

As for Gore, those around him say, the setbacks stiffened his resolve even more than the victories did. His prospects dimmed considerably on Nov. 22, the day Miami-Dade shut down its recount. But Gore was more unsettled - "shocked," Eskew says - by the melee outside the counting room, and the abc News report the following evening that the protesters had been G.O.P. operatives bent on intimidating the canvassers. Klain described it as "a pivotal moment, a crystallizing moment of understanding what was going on."

Gore had kept a lid on his allies: when Jesse Jackson rallied thousands in West Palm Beach and Miami on the two days after the election, the Vice President put out an order through Daley that there would be no more of that from any of his backers. The atmosphere in South Florida was already too charged, he argued. Early on, Gore opted not to go to West Palm Beach himself and make an appearance with supporters who feared they had mistakenly voted for Pat Buchanan.

Instead, he stayed in Washington and waged his war from the Vice President's hilltop Victorian mansion. When it became clear he would lose the certification fight with Harris, Gore worked a phone list of more than 20 newspaper and magazine editors, as well as anchors and political directors at the networks. His jawboning paid off and helped assure that no one played the story as a clean or definitive victory.

And Gore kept hold of his sense of humor, which had always shown itself best in private. When Leon County Circuit Judge N. Sanders Sauls not only overturned Gore's request for a manual recount but also repudiated virtually every major argument his lawyers had made, the Vice President telephoned a couple of his top advisers and deadpanned, "You know, I think that went pretty well."

Inevitably, of course, it got personal. Gore was steamed by Bush's televised declaration of victory the night Harris certified the election, Eskew says. "He thought it was minimalist in its healing and outreach. And the moves that they made to start the transition, I don't think he felt they were necessarily playing by the same set of rules." What Gore never expressed, aides say, was the kind of recrimination and self-doubt they had heard from him in other difficult times of the near past - during the campaign-finance scandals of 1996, Bill Clinton's impeachment, the dark early days of his own presidential quest. Old friends in Tennessee told the New York Times that Gore was haunted by the fact that he would be President if he had not lost his home state. But the troops around him in Washington insist that they saw none of that. "I have not heard him look back once," strategist Mark Fabiani said near the end.

Nor, at least while the fight was on, was he willing to look toward the future. At one point, when Eskew and Gore's brother-in-law Frank Hunger started musing about the Vice President's 2004 prospects, Eskew recalls, Gore cut them off: "Until we get to a midterm election, none of this stuff is set, so to speculate about it is really not something I want to spend time on." But in his concession speech, Gore clearly had an eye ahead, vowing to "never stop" the fight he began in his campaign. Of course, it may be that his party will not forgive him, four years from now, for having snatched defeat from the jaws of peace and prosperity. But it may also be that having won everything except the only thing that counted - the long, last legal battle - Gore has also won another shot.