Al Gore, hanging onto his presidential dreams by a thin legal thread, is preparing for a final battle that will require all his political acumen.
As he did during the Democratic convention last summer, he needs to sell himself once again to the American people, convincing at least his voters - and fellow Democratic politicians - that his lawsuits are worth pressing.
If he cares about how he goes down in history and his impact on the Democratic Party, analysts say, Mr. Gore needs to look like a fighter, in the positive sense of the word, and not a sore loser.
As Gore pursues his legal challenge, launched yesterday, to Florida's certification of George W. Bush's victory here, he is expected to press his point that the vote count needs to be "full, fair, and accurate."
Still, there are early signs that Gore is losing support of some Democratic voters. An overnight ABC News-Washington Post poll released yesterday found that 26 percent of
Gore's own supporters want him to concede. Overall, 6 in 10 Americans say the election should end.
Gore is "on less firm ground than he was last week," says Fred Yang, a Democratic pollster. "Gore has been OK up until now because his mantra has been, 'We want every vote counted.' " Now, Mr. Yang says, the contest is no longer about counting. Rather, "it's all in the courts."
The bottom line is that many Americans now view Mr. Bush as president-elect. That's a tough image for Gore to combat. For his part, analysts say, the Texas governor must look presidential and conciliatory, conveying the idea that the election is essentially over and that it's time to reunite the nation and move on.
Gore's last, best opportunity to make his case to the American people was to come yesterday in an expected address to the nation. But even if public opinion moves against Gore, "there's really nothing stopping him" as he pursues his case in court, says David Rohde, a political scientist at Michigan State University in East Lansing.
A running clock
Gore supporters say he has until Dec. 12 to finish his legal battles, the date by which the electors from all 50 states must be designated. The nation's 538 electors will cast their votes on Dec. 18, thus finalizing the 2000 elections.
But realistically, Gore has some breathing room only until the United States Supreme Court issues its judgment in a case that will be heard Friday, says Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown University in Washington. That case, filed by Bush, looks at whether the Florida Supreme Court violated the US Constitution by changing the rules of the Nov. 7 election after election day.
"Bush gave him [Gore] an extra week," says Professor Wayne.
The pending legal actions in Florida courts, which could also wind up in the US Supreme Court, would likely push right up against the Dec. 12 deadline, possibly straining the American public's patience for legal maneuvering.
In the immediate aftermath of Bush's certification in Florida, Gore's most prominent and vocal defenders have been former top elected Democrats, such as ex-Sen. George Mitchell of Maine and former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo.
Thus far, no leading Democrats have defected from Gore's cause. But for Democrats in the House and Senate, there are reasons to back away, even if only slightly, from Gore. Top congressional Democrats can see a clear path into the majority in the next Congress, since the presidential party almost always loses seats in the first midterm election after a president takes office. That means if Bush becomes president, historical precedent would predict that Democrats will take over Congress after the 2002 election.
For now, though, Democratic strategists argue that Gore has to keep up his fight and pursue the matter at hand, leaving the politics of 2002 and 2004 for the future. For Gore to concede now, before he has pursued the issue of vote recounts in Florida courts, would be a betrayal of his own voters, they say.
"It would be a very unhealthy thing as a party to walk away now," says David Axelrod, a Democratic consultant in Chicago. "We're almost at the end of the process; let's play it out."
If the situation were reversed
Mr. Axelrod adds that if the shoe were on the other foot - if Gore had come in ahead in Florida and been certified the winner - Bush would certainly be pursuing legal challenges, too.
Indeed, last weekend, before the state's official certification, top Republicans were prepared to urge Bush to fight Gore in Florida courts, if need be.
"I think he ought to push it to the limit and pursue whatever remedies he has," said Gov. Frank Keating (R) of Oklahoma, speaking outside the courtroom in Broward County where the county canvassing board was counting votes for Gore based on "dimpled" ballots, a practice Republicans viewed as unacceptable.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society