As vote arrives, lawyers are ready

Hardball campaigns dash to the finish, with unusually negative ads – and legal teams preparing to go to court.

The high stakes of Campaign 2002, coupled with the tightness of many races and raw memories of Florida's presidential recount, are fueling unusually fierce legal and rhetorical tactics by candidates and parties.

Campaign ads have gone harshly negative in close races. From the Massachusetts' governorship to Missouri's Senate slot, the road to victory appears to be paved with mud.

At the same time, both major parties have recruited unprecedented armies of lawyers – at least 10,000 on the Democratic side – for possible recount battles but also to keep an eye on voting procedures. Already, at Republican prodding, officials are dusting suspicious absentee ballots for fingerprints in Florida and examining charred ballot applications on a South Dakota Indian reservation.

The most obvious reason for the hardball tactics is the battle to control Congress. In the frenzied fight, each tight House or Senate race is about much more than the candidates themselves.

The campaign's tone also shows the indelible mark of the 2000 election. The recount battle signaled that lawyers can be as important as voters in shaping the outcomes of tight races. Neither party can afford to forget the lessons learned in Florida – and be ready to apply them in lesser races.

"It used to be that Election Day was the end of the process. Now it's just the beginning," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "We may not know for sure who controls the House and Senate until December or January."

Intimidation ... or fraud prevention?

Indeed, this is the first American campaign where the postelection strategy of both political parties has been conspicuous. Democrats promise to field at least 10,000 lawyers on Nov. 5 to make sure that eligible voters are not intimidated or prevented from casting ballots. In Washington, the Democratic National Committee is setting up a "boiler room" to process what it expects will be a flood of complaints of voter suppression, many of which could go on to the courts.

Top Democrats allege that keeping down the vote has been a GOP strategy since the 1980s, and will be again this year. Expect the Florida recount all over again – and all over the country, they warn. Stumping for Maryland Democrats last week, President Clinton said that he had never seen an election shaping up with so many irregularities.

Democrats say these activities range from poll workers in Arkansas taking photographs of black voters as they voted in the primaries to stationing off-duty policemen at polling places. "Ballot security and preventing voter fraud are just code words for voter intimidation and suppression," says Maria Cardona of the Democratic National Committee.

Republicans say the charges are scare tactics to fire up the Democratic base, especially black and Hispanic voters. "It's a continuation of the fear Democrats have been trying to spread for the last six months that Republicans are trying to disenfranchise people. It has no basis in fact," says Jim Dyke of the Republican National Committee.

Still, Republicans are lining up volunteer lawyers to make sure that get-out-the-vote drives do not generate fraud. The Republican National Lawyers Association (RNLA), which was set up in 1985 to train lawyers to intervene in election-law cases, has 1,500 members ready for cases of voter fraud.

"Since 2000, people are much more aware of the impreciseness and ambiguities that are present in election law, and there may be many more people looking to lawyers to overturn election results this year," says Craig Burkhardt, president of the RNLA.

In the final hours of Campaign 2002, big money, big political guns, and lawyers are pouring into battleground states – about six Senate races and 30 House matchups that should determine control of Congress.

Airwaves filled with attack ads

It's drawing record amounts of campaign spending and some of the harshest ads in memory. While 9/11 gave the nation a brief reprieve from the no-fangs-barred style of campaigns in years past, the high stakes of this campaign have opened a flood of negative ads.

As Nov. 5 approaches, the tone of political ads has become markedly less positive, according to a new report Oct. 22 by the Wisconsin Advertising Project. And the more competitive the race, the more likely that the advertising will be negative in tone.

"Candidates who are ahead feel the risks of negative campaigns are not worth taking," says Ken Goldstein, project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Candidates who are behind in the polls, however, can only win if they can eat away at their opponents' support through effective negative advertising."

Such ads, while derided, often carry accurate information about candidates' records. But ads this season also range from attacks on family members to intimations that the opponent is helping Osama bin Laden.

What the negative ads don't settle, the courtroom might. Activists on both sides are already anticipating court battles over how absentee ballots for Sen. Paul Wellstone (D) of Minnesota, killed in a recent plane crash, will be counted. Complaints of voting irregularities – and the hordes of legal advisers there to amplify them – add to the uncertainty.

"Even states like Minnesota and Iowa, which have had an excellent tradition of clean elections, are turning into cesspools of illegal activity," charges Paul Weyrich, a longtime GOP activist and president of the Free Congress Foundation. "No close election is going to be safe any more."

In South Dakota, where Democrats have mounted an unprecedented registration effort on Indian reservations, investigators for the state's Republican attorney general last week reported irregularities in 25 counties.

"It's a typical arms race between the parties – over money, ads, and now legal talent. When you get that many lawyers together to look at an election, believe me they'll find problems," says campaign analyst Sabato.

• Staff writer Abraham McLaughlin contributed to this report.

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