How anger over Florida recount still roils politics

The 2004 presidential race and the California recall have both felt the fallout.

The nation's political landscape is being revisited by a specter many thought had been permanently laid to rest in the wake of 9/11: the Florida recount.

With the fate of the California recall election now in the hands of the courts, and late-night comedians once again joking about hanging chads, the finale of the 2000 election is suddenly reemerging as a potent force in US politics - one that is casting a shadow over current contests, and could prove a key factor in 2004.

The effect is seen most overtly in California, where Democrats are deliberately evoking the Florida recount, linking it to the recall as part of a pattern of Republican coup attempts. Indeed, with prominent Democrats from Bill Clinton to Jesse Jackson to presidential hopefuls Bob Graham and John Kerry all stumping for Gov. Gray Davis this week, it suggests that the party may be looking to use anger over the 2000 election and the recall to energize Democratic voters, not just in California, but nationwide in 2004.

Moreover, in many ways, lingering anger over 2000 is already shaping the Democratic presidential contest - by fueling the rise of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. As the candidate who most directly challenged President Bush's legitimacy early on, with a call to reclaim the nation's democracy, Dean's advisers say he tapped into a well of resentment among Democratic activists.

"I think there's been a festering sore there for three years," says Paul Maslin, a Democratic pollster who works for Dean. "And that's where Howard Dean got the jump on this field. It wasn't just the war: He's giving voice to millions of Democrats who want someone to stand up not only to the wrongheaded policies of Bush, but [for] a sense that this guy shouldn't have been there in the first place. I think it's been unbelievably important."

Of course, analysts agree that anger over the Florida recount is unlikely to resonate much with the majority of voters, most of whom have long since moved on. But for the Democratic stalwarts who tend to dominate primaries, it's remained fresh.

"Among the general electorate, ordinary people who don't follow politics too much, Florida 2000 is already part of history. You may as well be talking about the Punic Wars," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. "But for Democratic activists, it's very much alive."

Indeed, Professor Pitney sees the recount as sparking a "blue-hot" sentiment among the Democratic base - a reference to the intensity of the "fire" burning on the left, and the fact that these voters hail from "blue" states - that has dominated the primary battle so far.

"The Democrats are angry," he says. "The recall is a blue-hot issue; the Texas redistricting is a blue-hot issue. And of course, Dean is the blue-hot candidate."

This anger is all the more striking given that, after 9/11, it was almost entirely submerged. For months, the terrorist attacks acted as a unifying event, seeming to wipe away the bitterness of the previous election. But over the past year, polls have shown partisan lines hardening once more.

Mr. Maslin argues that Bush missed a unique opportunity to unite the country after 9/11 by continuing to pursue a conservative agenda - and a controversial war.

And while the effect of this fury may be felt most in the Democratic primary, it could also play a key role in the general election. For one thing, many strategists now believe that the key to winning elections lies less in appealing to swing voters - who represent a dwindling and increasingly disparate segment of the electorate - than in motivating the base.

It's also possible that the memories of Florida will have a broader reach than might be assumed. Unlike other close elections in the nation's history, this was the first to play out as a 24-hour-a-day drama on national TV.

To some extent, it may be fueled by the situation now unfolding in California, given the intensity of media coverage there.

Regardless of which way the courts ultimately rule, analysts say the outcome could spark memories of Florida and give new force to feelings of resentment on the left. If the recall is ordered to go ahead on Oct. 7, either by the full appeals court or the Supreme Court, it would give Democrats new ammunition to cast Republicans as disenfranchising minority voters, and seizing power unfairly. If it gets postponed until March, it would be held at the same time as the Democratic presidential primary - allowing White House hopefuls to further rail against the recall.

"The Florida recount is the Democratic version of the Bork hearings," says Dan Schnur, a GOP strategist in California. "It may have moved off the front pages, but it's going to be a Democratic motivator for ... years."

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