Political goal posts move in election clash

Neither candidate is likely to concede until the US Supreme Court weighs in.

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Just a few days ago, Al Gore faced a growing political challenge.

Enthusiasm among Democrats for a protracted fight to put the vice president in the White House appeared to be fraying - especially as Mr. Gore remained consistently behind George W. Bush in the Florida vote recounts.

Here in south Florida, where Gore hoped to gain enough of the hand-recounted votes to overtake Governor Bush in time for yesterday's deadline, Bush had more political big guns observing the process than Gore.

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Now the goal posts have shifted. The US Supreme Court will hear arguments Friday on the legality of Florida's hand recounts. That takes the pressure off Gore to concede the election immediately if Bush is certified as the winner in Florida. Gore's troops have rallied behind him.

But make no mistake about it: Whoever is awarded Florida's 25 electoral votes - and, thus, the presidency - as was expected to take place yesterday evening, takes a big step forward in the all-important battle for advantage in the court of public opinion.

For Bush in particular, gaining the Florida certification would create a crucial "fact on the ground," following 19 straight days as the leader in state vote counts and in the face of hand recounts whose rules appeared to favor Gore.

If Gore manages to pull out a last-minute victory through the hand recounts, which remained a possibility at time of writing, he will have a tougher time convincing the public that the victory is rightfully his.

"It's Gore who's seeking to overturn Bush," says Charles Jones, an emeritus professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "If he's successful in doing that, based on what will likely be a partial recount in Palm Beach County, the whole thing looks potentially jerry-rigged. He won't have the same advantage Bush would have."

Nevertheless, a Gore certification would put the vice president technically in the lead spot here. Being ahead is being ahead, even if the result is under dispute.

And for Gore, who narrowly won the nationwide popular vote and by all accounts believes to his core that he did win Florida, a technical certification as winner here would embolden him as he proceeds with contingency plans for a transition.

Still, the counting of some "dimpled" ballots as votes - more of which were awarded to Gore than to Bush - has enraged Republicans. "The process is bizarre," said former Sen. Bob Dole, outside the courtroom here where the ballots were counted.

A contingent of Democratic politicians - such as Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, and Rep. Alcee Hastings of Florida, who represents this part of the state - descended on the courthouse Saturday. They showed their support for Gore and expressed outrage over what they called the "mob violence" in Miami-Dade County, which subsequently halted its hand recount, citing a lack of time.

The day before, the Gore camp had enlisted prominent Democrats to rally behind him, as some top Democrats, such as Sen. Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, began to make statements to the press that seemed less than 100 percent supportive.

Outside the Broward County courthouse, Bush supporters numbering in the hundreds shouted down Gore supporters, who numbered in the dozens.

The scene was striking, given that this is a heavily Democratic county. It created the appearance that Republicans here are more motivated than Democrats to show support for their candidate.

Indeed, throughout the campaign, polls showed that Bush enjoyed higher support among Republicans than Gore did among Democrats. After eight years out of power, analysts say, Republicans are hungrier to regain the White House.

And while Republicans, from top officials down to garden-variety voters, seem totally united behind their man, even some Democratic politicians remain leery of seeing Gore continue his battle in a variety of lawsuits if Bush is certified as Florida's winner.

Walter Campbell, a Democratic state senator from Broward County, said yesterday he thought Gore should concede the election immediately if Bush is declared the winner.

"The nation needs to heal," said Senator Campbell. "It would allow us all to move on with our lives."

In the Washington context, Gore may also face a tougher battle keeping top Democrats fully behind him for the duration, but for different reasons. Almost always, after a presidential election, the president's party loses seats in Congress in the first midterm election. With the balance of power in the new Congress only slightly favoring Republicans, Democrats seem well positioned to take over both houses in 2002 elections - allowing Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri to fulfill his dream of becoming Speaker of the House and installing Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota as Senate majority leader.

"There's no doubt in my mind" that they're that Machiavellian, says Del Ali, an independent pollster based in Maryland.

Congressional Republicans, on the other hand, still smart from their repeated defeats at the hand of President Clinton over the past eight years. It seemed particularly telling that two of the House managers who oversaw Clinton's1998 impeachment were in attendance here in Florida as part of the Bush brigade, Reps. Asa Hutchinson (R) of Arkansas and Steve Buyer (R) of Indiana.

On the Democratic side, Congressman Nadler was a prominent player in the impeachment battle. All this has perpetuated the notion that this post-election period has felt, in some ways, like the impeachment all over again.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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