In sunny Florida, citizens keeping their cool

The Union is safe. Or so it appears here in the sun-soaked county whose final vote could crown the next president of the United States.

Sure, there are protests in the streets, counts and recounts, and more court challenges than most people can understand. But by and large, Palm Beach County residents have retained a steady calm throughout, as if they know something the rest of the world doesn't.

"There's not gonna be a catastrophe here," says Cameron Ralston confidently, as he sits on a folding chair in front of the Clematis Street News Cafe, where he has worked for the past five years. "The only thing I can see coming out of this is a revamping of our voting system."

Indeed, residents of West Palm Beach say that, if anything, the voting controversy points to the resilience of American democracy and its ability to bend through turbulent times.

In other countries, they point out, a disputed presidential election could lead to a mobilization of the armed forces or a declaration of a state of emergency.

Here, it means that all 100 officers from the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office are on 24-hour call.

"We haven't had to arrest anyone yet," says John Sluth, a tall trooper who was leaning against a government building and watching the 150 or so protesters who showed up recently at the corner of Olive and Third Streets.

"I don't think there's anything wrong with our political system," he adds. "Our Constitution has worked for some 200 years, and it will continue to work."

While West Palm Beach may have a television image as a city on the brink of implosion - and indeed a visit by the Rev. Jesse Jackson was expected to draw a large crowd Monday afternoon - visitors who dropped by here over the weekend were surprised there wasn't more to see.

"I'm shocked it's so small," says Harriet Chandler, a state senator from Massachusetts. She was vacationing in West Palm Beach after winning an election herself - by an undisputed 20,000 votes.

"[The demonstrations] looked a lot bigger on TV," she says, snapping a photo of her husband standing in front of protesters.

The crowds outside the county elections office are likely to grow as the process drags on, but so far they have been manageable, police say. Many of the protesters are regulars who have learned to mug for the cameras - giving the impression that they are more numerous than they really are.

And even though passions run high and more than a few insults have been slung across the street between Gore supporters and Bush supporters, there is probably more bark than bite.

Bill Kocher, a Democrat, and John Parsons, a Republican, even rested their placards long enough Sunday to carry out a relatively civil conversation about the fairness of the disputed "butterfly" ballot.

According to John Burke, a publicist for the city of West Palm Beach, most of the people who live here came to escape the stress that permeates other cities. "It's much more livable here," he says, explaining that the city has blossomed in the past six years.

That attitude carries over to opinions about the ballot confusion. Many people seem annoyed and embarrassed by all the national attention. They hope it will go away soon.

At least one person, however, seems be finding a bright side. Nestor Navarro sells T-shirts that say "Revote" on the back. On the front is a tangled caricature of the butterfly ballot. "We're selling more than I expected," he says, taking a $10 bill from a customer.

To the outside world, the scene may be hard to understand. Aoki Nobuyuki, a Japanese newspaper reporter, is one of the dozens of international correspondents who have descended on West Palm Beach. On a recent afternoon, he patiently surveyed the growing crowd of demonstrators, and tried to make sense of it. "This situation is in danger of becoming a crisis," he says.

Then, taking another look, he adds, "Actually, I'm not sure about that."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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