Reversal of Fortune For a few moments, each side thought it had captured the presidency, only to lose it again. TIME's Nancy Gibbs presents an inside look at that historic night and the war that has begun

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Imagine for a moment what it was like to be Al Gore on Wednesday morning. The man who said the presidential election wasn't a popularity contest won the popularity contest. He collected more votes than Bill Clinton ever did, more votes than any other Democrat in history. But like his father before him, he couldn't hold on to his home state, and that could cost him the race. The most fervent environmentalist in national politics was foiled by the Green Party; the guy who as a young Congressman made his name investigating tainted baby formula and influence peddling by the contact-lens industry lost because of a few thousand votes for a mischievous consumer advocate. Gore is the one who campaigned as though every vote counted - and he was right.

Now imagine what it was like to be George W. Bush. He had led for 20 out of the last 26 weeks in the polls, and his advisers had promised he would win it in a walk. Now his life depended on a state he viewed as a family colony. His entire message was built around the promise to heal the divide, restore people's faith in a system that seemed cruddy and cracked. Now the count comes in and the cracks have deepened, no matter who wins and how. All through his life he followed his father's footsteps, to Yale and flight school and the oil patch, but once he got there, the prizes had lost some of their honor and shine. The biggest prize of all was now within reach, back in the family, but even if he finally wins, he has to wonder what it's worth.

The rest of us woke up Wednesday morning not knowing who would be the next leader of the free world; not knowing when we would know; not knowing if the eventual winner would be able to govern, with a Senate split down the middle and a teeny Republican edge in the House and a nation so neatly and clearly and evenly divided that it would take a pair of tweezers to find a mandate in the results. Neither side even tried.

The world's greatest economic powerhouse, cradle of the information age, was counting ballots by hand. One hundred million people had voted, and the outcome danced in the margin of error. There were murmurs from all over the country, not just in Florida, of broken voting machines and missing registrations and disappearing ballot boxes and intimidation and confusion, a growing conviction among true believers on both sides that this prize was about to be stolen. The sleep-deprived commentariat talked of a country divided and a constitutional crisis looming, which may not have been true, but it didn't hurt ratings. The markets shivered but did not collapse; people still read the sports pages first.

After 18 months and $286 million, the 2000 presidential election looked as if it might be decided by one-five-thousandth of 1% of the vote. Gore seemed to have won a moral victory, but he may not have won an actual one. His 222,880-vote lead in the popular tally was the fuel for his campaign's demand for a manual recount in some Florida counties, for time to register the outcome of the absentee ballots there, and for the nation to show some patience. And so the end of one campaign marked the beginning of another. "The American people have now spoken," Bill Clinton declared, "but it's going to take a while to determine exactly what they said."

Where we're going there are no maps and no guardrails. These two men have choices to make. Both talked about the will of the people and the rule of law, of bringing the country together, but as the hours and then days passed, the temperature began to rise, and so did the stakes.

In public, the Bush position was essentially this: "We've won. Gore lost. And while we're willing to have one recount because the public believes in fairness, don't expect us to go along with this forever." It's no accident that James Baker, the former Secretary of State and former President Bush's best friend, was named to take charge of this battle. He is extremely experienced at sending layers of signals simultaneously, and so he sent different messages to the Democrats and to the nation.

To the American people he said: We're one of the great nations on earth that transfers power peacefully. That meant Gore is taking a crowbar to that tradition; how much damage are people prepared to tolerate? Baker said he was prepared to wait for the absentee ballots, all due by this Friday, but drew a line at the prospect of a third count, by hand this time, of the Florida ballots.

That is because those ballots frighten the Bush camp. On the confusing "punch card" ballots, some voters did not punch through the hole and left a little paper flap hanging. A machine may not recognize this punch as a vote, but a human being might, which is what the Democrats are hoping. They could pick up a thousand votes or two this way; the first may have already given them an extra 1,457. On Saturday morning, Baker announced that the Bush campaign had gone to federal court to block any manual recount.

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But Baker's coded message to the Democrats on Friday was already a threat. "If we keep going down the path we're on," he warned "then we just can't sit on our hands, and we will be forced to do what might be in our best personal interest, but not in the best interest of our wonderful country." In other words, if Gore pushes Florida too hard, Bush will demand recounts in Iowa, Wisconsin, New Mexico and Oregon. If Gore gained Florida but lost a combination of three of those states, the Electoral College vote would end in a deadlock, 269-269, in which case the race would tumble into the House of Representatives, which the Republicans, by a piece of tissue, control.

And top Republicans told Time that Baker has every intention of going after Gore's Achilles' heel in California if necessary: the 1 million absentee ballots. Bush would not win enough to take back the state. But Republicans estimate that there are 600,000 Bush votes in boxes in California somewhere, and those could be enough to reverse Gore's popular-vote victory.

The Bush strategy was to take away what it considers Gore's only moral leverage. And so Baker was really offering Gore an exit strategy: depart the field now, as the clear popular-vote winner, and live to fight another day - in 2004, Gore will be only 57 - or take your chances, face a popular-vote recount elsewhere, and risk losing that imprimatur as party leader, heroic victim, Mr. Popularity. Bush's people were betting Gore would take this sooner or later. But the offer may not last long. "If they want to play hardball, fine," said a Bush aide. "We're prepared."

The Democrats, meanwhile, did not like what they saw last week. They did not like the images of Bush surrounded by a government in waiting, all but ordering new White House china. And so their strategy was to fight on three fronts, each with different tactical goals.

The first was the recount, to prevent the immediate certification of the Florida results; the outcome from a hand count could still save the day. There was also the outside chance that the overseas ballots would include enough from Israel to tip the balance to Gore. The second was the public relations war: stoke the anger of African Americans and Jews, for whom disfranchisement strikes a deep chord, throw Austin off balance, keep that transition from getting organized. All this had useful downstream benefits for the Democrats, even if they don't ultimately prevail. The third track was to figure out the legal strategy while the first two tracks bought them time to mull it over.

Gore has a powerful instinct for the endgame, as he has shown in many budget battles, in his handling Bosnia and above all at the end of his losing presidential bid in 1988. It had been a brutal race, but he found a way to end it gracefully. More important than winning, Gore said, was "helping my party, serving my country, knowing when to keep fighting and knowing when I've been licked." Some people close to Gore saw in the results last week a popular mandate for his ideas; these were the people counseling Gore to fight on as long as the cause was just, wait for the last vote to be counted and checked, but then, if Bush retained his edge, lay down the legal sword.

Then he could sit back and watch President Bush struggle to move forward in a gruesomely divided Capitol, hoping that four years from now his party could not possibly deny the nomination to the man who won the popular vote. Two of the three men in American history who won the popular vote only to lose in the Electoral College came back four years later to win in a landslide.

When Gore's father lost his Senate seat in 1970, he ended by saying, "The truth shall rise again." Gore believes the truth is still on his side, and he is a patient man.

Hillary Clinton, however, was losing no time. Her victory in New York was also a piece of history, and not just because she is the first First Lady ever elected to anything. She promised on Friday to back a bill abolishing the Electoral College and providing for direct popular vote for the President - the kind of system that particularly favors candidates from big states. And so the week ended with one dynasty struggling to survive as another was being born - one intergenerational, one intermarital. Both were conceived in pride and nursed on revenge, and you wondered if they may meet one day to clash again.

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No matter how hard they work and how far they travel and how much they want it, when judgment day dawns, the candidates usually stand still at last. They go to the polls and cast their votes. Then they take a deep breath and just hold it for the rest of the day. Bush woke up Tuesday morning at 6 a.m., made coffee for his wife, fed his cats, read his Bible and called his folks to reassure them that he would, indeed, become the nation's 43rd President of the U.S. His chief strategist, Karl Rove, had been assuring him that victory was his - 5 points in the popular vote, 330 electoral votes. How was he feeling? "Calm," he told the assembled reporters. "Let me see if you got this by now. I trust the people. I trust their will. I trust their wisdom."

The other man - bleary-eyed, wired, hoarse, drained of everything but spirit after campaigning for 30 hours straight - had never even made it to bed, and he was not about to stop. Gore began Monday at dawn in the rain outside the John Deere factory in, of all places, Waterloo, Iowa, then on to Missouri, Michigan and Florida, where as the sun came up, he delivered Cuban pastries from a local bakery to hundreds of cheering volunteers. The reporters trailing him by this time had propped their tape recorders up on the tables and curled up underneath them.

Throughout the day Tuesday, the campaigns knew that turnout was huge in the battleground states - lines stretched around the block in Cleveland, voters waited for hours in Nashville, and some precincts in Florida were reporting that 80% of registered voters were at the polls. In New Mexico, snowplows were used to deliver ballots in a storm; some precincts had no electricity, but the voting machines had backup batteries.

Election Day began badly for Donna Brazile, Gore's chief turnout strategist. Her suitcase had vanished. It contained her life she said, including her Bible and, most irreplaceable, her "grounding stones," which her grandmother had given her and which are sort of her good-luck charm. She was in no mood to be out of luck at that particular moment. The first alarms went off at Gore headquarters at 6 a.m.: workers there started hearing that voters in heavily Democratic Palm Beach County were confused by the ballots. "The ballots do not line up in the machine with the correct candidates," said Joan Joseph of the Palm Beach County Democratic Party. "People who think they are voting for Gore could be voting for Pat Buchanan, because the word Democrat is lined up with Buchanan."

As soon as they realized the problem, all hell broke loose. Party officials were frantically calling Democratic Party state headquarters and Gore's command center in Tallahassee. In the meantime, the Democrats frantically printed flyers to warn voters about the problem and tried to get party activists to the polling places to sound the alarm. But they had already missed the important prework hours.

Midafternoon, when the first exit polls came in, the first hints of history in the making began to flicker through the nation's e-mail system. They confirmed what some Bush aides had feared, that they had lost momentum in the closing days. Last guys don't finish nice, and Gore had hit Bush hard on not being ready to lead, not even knowing that Social Security was a federal program. The ticket that promised to restore honor and dignity to the White House turned out to have four arrests between them; the news of Bush's drunk-driving record was hurting, said a senior Bush adviser. "That's the only thing that changed in the last days of the campaign." Voters who had made up their mind in the closing days were breaking to Gore.

All afternoon, Gore was at the Loews Hotel in Nashville, sitting in his hotel room in his blue suit and tie, on the radio, giving interviews at five-minute intervals one after another. So were Joe Lieberman, Karenna, Tipper.Everyone was on the phone, on the air. Gore consulted with staff members about his speech for that evening, how he wanted to frame a victory and how he would handle a defeat. He asked for a section about his father, how he had lost Tennessee but never stopped loving it and calling it home, and how sometimes it was better to lose because you stood up for what you believed in.

Shortly before 8 p.m. the networks announced that Gore had taken Florida. The battleground states of Michigan and Pennsylvania soon fell as well, and every anchor became a math teacher, showing how it was increasingly difficult for Bush to find the 270 electoral votes he would need to win. All the networks were reading the data from the Voter News Service consortium and grinding it through their own analysis to try to be the first to declare a winner. Little things can make a difference when every minute counts, and what they didn't know was that vns had a bad sample in Tampa, some faulty data in Jacksonville. Plus there were voters in Palm Beach who told the exit pollers they had voted for Gore, when in fact their vote had been registered for Buchanan.

Bush had hoped to have a special dinner with his wife and parents and brother Jeb, cherishing the knowledge that the exit polls were telling them everything they wanted to hear. But Bush was already tense when he got to the Shoreline Grill early that evening. As the family members made their way under dim lights to the restaurant, Bush's shoulders were more hunched than usual, his father looked as if he was suffering from an ulcer, and Barbara wore a smile tight as a fist. By then they knew the race was much closer than Rove had promised it would be. But it wasn't until the news that Gore had captured Florida appeared on a TV screen in the restaurant that the mood turned from grim to black.

Jeb Bush, Florida's Governor, reportedly succumbed to the pressure that has been on him ever since his brother announced for the presidency. With tears in his eyes, Jeb apologized to his brother for letting him down. Poppy and Barbara were distraught. The family business - politics - was now tearing at the fabric of the family itself. The media reports had been hard to take: reports that Jeb hadn't worked hard enough for George, that he resented George's relatively greater success and was worried that a George in the White House would almost certainly mean there would never be a Jeb in the White House. Now those notions and rumors could harden into truths passed on from one stranger to another: Jeb had failed. He had sabotaged his brother's campaign. He couldn't deliver.

Jeb left the restaurant. And instead of staying at the Four Seasons suite to savor the moment with friends and staff, Bush decided he just wanted to go home. He summoned the motorcade to take him and Laura and Mom and Dad back to the Governor's mansion to watch and wait and wonder. Jeb would later turn up there too. If George really came unglued at the prospect of losing, he would allow only his family to see it.

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The Bush aides at campaign headquarters were beside themselves that the networks would call Florida even before polls had closed in the more heavily Republican panhandle, which is in the Central time zone. Also, the raw numbers the Bush people were seeing were telling them they were slightly ahead of Gore statewide, not behind. "I don't believe some of these states they've called," Bush said. Rove and strategist Ed Gillespie called the networks to complain. "I don't know how you can call a state that's this close!" Bush media adviser Stu Stevens protested. "It's ridiculous! It's an outrage!" It was Rove's idea to summon the camera pool into the Governor's mansion so Bush could break into the newscasts and question the Florida results himself on network television. "It's going to be a long night," Bush said.

The calls were desperate because the steam was coming out of the Bush effort out West. In California, the Florida call hit just at the wrong moment: drive time. Voters and volunteers have to be wooed on their way to work or coming home. Once they get home, it's a lot harder to get them out of their comfy chairs into dark cafeterias and libraries to vote. After Florida was called, Bush volunteers just started going home or not showing up at all.

At 8:15, Gore was surfing the time zones, calling tiny radio stations in rural New Mexico, urging people to vote. Lieberman was working Arizona and Minnesota. Gore's geeks were hunched over their computers hunting for paths to the magic 270 electoral votes in states where the polls were still open. Once they lost New Hampshire, their eyes turned to New Mexico; if that collapsed it would come down to Oregon. Even back in New York, President Clinton had quickly concluded that with Florida, Gore had 262 electoral votes locked up. So at the moment his wife was declared the winner of her historic Senate race, the leader of the free world was talking to a Las Vegas radio station, trolling for the last eight votes.

Down in Austin, Rove and polling analyst Matthew Dowd were in their adjacent offices, glued to their computers and telephones. "They were like mad scientists with those calculators," says media strategist Mark McKinnon. "They were punching them so hard and so fast it sounded like a machine gun." At various points one of them would shout that they were a thousand votes down or a thousand votes up. "We lived and died a thousand times tonight," said McKinnon. Spectators hovered outside Rove's office, looking in through a glass window. "We were all standing around like expectant fathers," says Jim Ferguson, a member of Bush's outside ad team. "We were all looking through the window hoping the baby wouldn't come out with three heads." On several occasions, Rove ordered people to stand back from his door, as though his office - or he himself - were a victim of exhaustion, collapsed on the ground on a hot day and in need of both air and medical attention.

At 9:55, cnn took Florida back from Gore, and the other networks shortly followed, declaring it too close to call. The lobby of the Loews was suddenly empty. Campaign chairman Bill Daley was on his cell phone, and he looked sick.

For his part, Bush "was like a prizefighter pulling himself off the mat," said a source who was in frequent touch with those at the mansion with him. He kept calling Rove at the headquarters, demanding new information. "How's it look?" he would ask. "Anything new?" By 1:30 most states had tumbled one way or the other, and both men had a total of 242 electoral votes. The counts were unimaginably, unbearably close. Florida was still undecided, but by 1 a.m., the Bush camp had more than a 200,000-vote cushion. His staff members knew Dade and Broward counties still hadn't reported, but their models told them they had a lead that was insurmountable. The margin would shrink, but then "it was just a matter of hanging on to the cliff by our fingers," remembers McKinnon. The problem is, "each finger kept getting stepped on." He and Ferguson nipped out for a little tequila to calm their nerves. Rove, who was wearing his phone headset all evening, was calling a statistics professor in Texas for his analysis of how the numbers were running, and then yelling, "Get me Dowd!" to his secretary, whereupon Dowd would turn up from an adjacent office where he had been doing his own number crunching while checking the cbs website.

Around 2 a.m., Rove called the Governor. "Mr. President," he began, and then he told him what they'd just learned. They had won enough votes in Florida's Hillsborough County to win the state - and the whole prize. Ninety-eight percent of the precincts were in, and they were ahead by more than 50,000 votes.

At 2:15 a.m., the networks gift-wrapped Florida once more and this time handed it to Bush. "Everyone went insane, screaming and crying," McKinnon says. Virtually the entire staff in the headquarters left the building, forming a dance line up Congress Avenue along the eight blocks to the celebration site. The colored lights were flashing on the capitol; it's a miracle no one was electrocuted in the sweeping rain. At the rally the television screens switched to a video of Bush on the trail, at home and on the ranch, all to the tune of Signed, Sealed, Delivered.

Gore was watching the final returns in the staff room on the seventh floor of the Loews. Of his family, only Karenna was with him, her arm around him, rubbing his back, other times sitting on the floor. When it was finally called for Bush, there was a moment of stunned silence. Then as Gore stood and thanked his aides, they began to cry and hug one another. The Vice President made it clear that he wanted to move with swift grace to say his goodbye to his waiting supporters and the country. He started working on his concession speech with what an aide described as a "let's get it over with" resolve. He returned to his private family suite on the ninth floor as a resolute Tipper stood with him. Gore comforted his sobbing daughters.

What happened next has Democrats still baffled. The man who was willing to fight so long and work so hard and campaign until he dropped seemed in a hurry to drop out. He had been up for 50 hours straight by this time. But Tipper was ready to hold on a while longer, and so were some other aides, including former chief of staff Jack Quinn, who was in the lobby on the phone. Lieberman too wanted to fight. Brazile got an e-mail from her assistant saying it had been called. She wrote back, "Never surrender. It's not over yet." As they headed to the motorcade, Brazile's gut told her they were moving too quickly. The somber mood was too premature. "It was like going to a funeral, but without a corpse."

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Nonetheless, Gore called Bush around 2:30 to concede. "You're a good man," Bush told him. He said he understood how hard this was, and gave his best wishes to Tipper and the children.

But the man who "invented" the Internet was suddenly saved by it. As Gore's motorcade splashed through the rainy streets to the war memorial for the concession speech, traveling chief of staff Michael Feldman's pager quivered. It was field director Michael Whouley, saying he needed to talk to Daley. "Changed situation here," Whouley said. He was in the boiler room watching the Florida Board of Elections website, which, Daley says, "had the margin down to 900, and within minutes, it was 500, 200, slipping pretty quickly." By now the motorcade had arrived at the memorial. Daley told Feldman to grab the Veep and keep him from going onstage. "I said, 'Well, Michael, it probably would be good to go to a holding room,'" said Daley. Everyone's phone was ringing now. "We had no TV, everyone was on a cell phone," says adviser Greg Simon. "People were calling us from everywhere, saying you're only 500 votes, 600 votes behind, don't concede."

Daley called his counterpart in the Bush camp, Don Evans, and said, "We may have a situation here." Under Florida law, a margin that slim triggered an automatic recount. Then, around 3:45, Gore got on the phone himself with the Governor. "As you may have noticed, things have changed," he said. If indeed the vote went to Bush, he'd be happy to concede and give him his support, but for now, "the state of Florida is too close to call," Gore said.

Aides in the room say Bush was not taking the news well. "You could tell Bush was definitely barking at him," says someone who was there. "Let me make sure I understand," Bush said, stunned. "You're calling me back to retract your concession." These are two fiercely competitive men, and they have not become friends in the past year. "Well, there's no reason to get snippy," Gore said. He had to repeat himself - it's too close to concede - a couple of times. Bush was confident that this time the networks were right. Brother Jeb was right there, crunching the numbers for himself from the Florida website. "Let me explain it to you," Gore said. "Your younger brother is not the ultimate authority on this." The call ended abruptly. "Well, Mr. Vice President," Bush said, "you need to do what you have to do."

When Gore put down the phone, he pumped his arm in victory, the aides around him burst into cheers, and all began to applaud. Outside in the cold, damp night, his supporters were waiting for word. For a brief time, they debated the idea of rewriting the concession speech to capture the suspended animation and having Gore go out and give it. The Veep's concern was that all these people had waited hours in the rain, and they would want to see him in person. But they quickly decided to send Daley out instead. Daley and Karenna stood over speechwriter Eli Attie and shouted their ideas at him as he tapped out the draft of what the chairman would say.

As Daley bounded out onto the stage, the crowd chanted, "Stay and fight" and "We count" and, finally, "Fuzzy math."

"I've been in politics for a long time," he said. "But there's never been a night like this one." Gore and Lieberman, he said, were fully prepared to concede the race and wish Bush well "if and when he is officially elected President." But in the meantime, "our campaign continues."

Truer words were never spoken. Before the motorcade had even made it back to the Loews, the Gore team was moving fast. Seventy lawyers and operatives, led by former chief of staff Ron Klain, piled onto Lieberman's chartered plane to head down to Florida. They would be on the ground within two hours.

The rest of the world was dizzy. Foreign leaders had been sending Bush their congratulatory telegrams, and then had to call and retract them. The networks had unfurled their fancy presidential script, "George W. Bush, 43rd President," only to roll it back up again. The New York Times had to stop the presses. The Gore mob back at the hotel were as happy as they had been distraught about an hour before. Daley was telling reporters what happened. "When you're done, come into the bar!" Carter Eskew, Gore's old newspaper friend and now his message adviser, hollered.

"Fine," Daley answered. "I'll do the Today show from there."

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When Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes faced reporters after the sun came up Wednesday morning, she - and they - was still dazed and confused. "I watched it this morning on television in excerpts, and I thought maybe it had all been a dream, and then I realized I was awake the whole time," she said. The entire shape and design of the past 18 months have been for the campaigns to look presidential, as if by appearing so they were so. Their confidence raised them all that money and helped them resist all that advice from Washington. And so Bush aides carefully leaked that Dick Cheney would be heading the transition effort and would be assisted by Colin Powell. Andrew Card, the deputy chief of staff under President Bush, would now be chief of staff. Several photo ops were staged with Bush and his Cabinet-in-waiting to show that this certification was just a matter of time, so he'd better get down to business. "There was some internal debate about beginning the transition," says a Republican in touch with Austin. "Does it seem arrogant and overconfident, or does that project assurance?"

When Bush himself appeared outside the Governor's mansion, he said that "America has a long tr