Mob Scene In Miami

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Marjorie Strayer insisted she was just a Virginian on vacation in Miami. She had come to the downtown Stephen P. Clark Government Center to watch the Dade County vote recount — something to do before the trip to the Seaquarium. But Strayer, it turns out, is a top aide to New Mexico's Republican congresswoman, Heather Wilson, and was one of hundreds of paid GOP crusaders who descended on South Florida last Wednesday to protest the state's recounts. "The system is unfair, inaccurate, fraught with human error!" Strayer cried. In a Winnebago outside, GOP operatives orchestrated the ranks up to the 19th floor, hoping to halt the tally of the largest potential lode of Gore votes. Republicans, not usually known for takin' it to the streets, got what they wanted. Just two hours after a near riot outside the counting room, the Miami-Dade canvassing board voted to shut down the count. Yet the way the Republicans went after it, by intimidating the three-member board or by providing the excuse it was looking for, gave Americans the first TV view of strong-arm tactics in what was supposed to be a showcase of democracy in action. If Jesse Jackson can do it, the Republicans argued, so can we. But the GOP's march turned into a mob. The screaming, the pounding on doors and the alleged physical assaults on Democrats suddenly made a bemused public queasy. "I'm all for anyone's right to protest," says Miami-Dade Democratic chairman Joe Geller, who had to have a police escort. "These were Brownshirt tactics." It was the Dade vote counters, however, who provoked the Republican machine. Seemingly oblivious to GOP anger over the Florida Supreme Court ruling to allow manual recounts, the canvassing board tried an end run around the court's Sunday deadline by deciding to recount only some 11,000 of Dade's 654,000 ballots. Those disputed ballots, most of which did not register presidential votes in the machines, were thought to favor Gore. Worse, the board moved into a smaller room that cut off public observation. "They denied our legal rights," says Paul Crespo, an ex-Marine and coordinator of a group called Young Professionals for Bush. "We cried foul." In fact, the Republicans, who justifiably delight in throwing 1960s chants back at Democrats, began shouting, "The whole world is watching!"

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