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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

After Hectic Month, Camps Now Can Only Wait

Mood: As Supreme Court justices debate legality of the recounts, Bush and Gore lieutenants ponder what's next.

December 12, 2000|ELIZABETH SHOGREN and RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — In monumental marble buildings and sleek office towers, people who had campaigned their hearts out for a year and fought tirelessly over election results for more than a month had nothing to do Monday but wait.

After traveling the country to pitch their presidential candidates and waging a ground war in Florida trying to clinch victory, everything hinged on the decision of the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices.

As the high court debated whether to allow Florida's presidential recounts to continue, officials at the White House wondered who would get the keys; Democrats in Congress struggled to maintain their optimism; lawyers in Tallahassee, Fla., wrestled with unaccustomed idleness; and loyalists to Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush stood by, their futures hanging in the balance.

The candidates waited as well. At the vice president's mansion in Washington, Gore had no public comment, while in Austin, Texas, Bush said little beyond offering that he was "cautiously optimistic."

If the court rules in Gore's favor, senior advisor Greg Simon could be flying back to Florida today to try to prevent the state Legislature from approving a slate of electors loyal to Bush. Or, if the court decides against Gore, Simon finally could be returning to his normal life: consulting for new high-tech businesses trying to navigate federal laws and regulations.

Simon said his goal is to not think about how much he personally has at stake after all the sweat and soul he devoted to three Gore campaigns--two for the vice presidency and this year's for the presidency.

"Emotionally, it's pretty intense," Simon said. "It's been an incredible roller coaster."

The spectacle at the Supreme Court had the effect of eclipsing--and in some cases disrupting--Congress' routine business. For example, scant attention was being paid Monday to year-end budget negotiations between President Clinton and congressional lawmakers.

When asked whether negotiators had cut a deal, a spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) responded: "Does anyone really care?"

While some members of Congress attended the Supreme Court hearing, other lawmakers and staff members wandered across the Capitol Plaza to witness the controlled chaos outside the court--a swirling mass of protesters, media and spectators.

"I think that Gore's chances of getting some sort of recount were very, very, very dim and have improved all the way to dim," said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), who attended the hearing.

Some Democrats fumed as they listened, still furious about the court's decision Saturday to halt the recounts.

"It leaves me very depressed," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). "It's been one impediment after another to prevent a full count."

Others described their emotions as a mixture of hope--that Gore could still pull out a victory--and relief that the end seems to be in sight.

"All of us have experienced very long election nights, but this has been one very, very long election night," said Rep. Dale E. Kildee (D-Mich.).

At both parties' national headquarters, the usual postelection exoduses were delayed; party functionaries were putting off plans for vacations and new jobs.

"We've become somewhat politically ambidextrous," said Republican National Committee spokesman Mark Pfeifle. "We keep one eye on our computer screens . . . and another eye on the TV screen."

In the shadow of Tallahassee's Capitol building, the bar at Andrews--a popular restaurant--was packed with a lunchtime crowd following the Supreme Court hearing on television.

Inside the Florida Capitol, legislators were moving ahead with contingency plans for naming a separate GOP slate of electors. But at the same time, they were watching the U.S. Supreme Court. "These are extraordinary times," said Republican Tom Feeney, speaker of the Florida House, during a break in the debate.

Just as the Florida politicians kept a nervous eye on Washington, so too did the lawyers.

For two frenzied weeks, attorneys have been bickering about two lawsuits that claim Republicans colluded to fix flawed election documents in Seminole and Martin counties.

At 9 a.m. Monday, they filed thick legal briefs with the Florida Supreme Court for their appeal--and were met with stony silence.

"We've all been going 500 miles an hour, and we may need to go 500 miles an hour again tomorrow," said Jonathan E. Sjostrom, a Tallahassee attorney who represents Florida election officials--including Secretary of State Katherine Harris--in those lawsuits.

At the White House, Clinton administration officials toiled away, clashing one last time with Congress over the budget.

"The work continues," said Maria Echaveste, deputy chief of staff. "But is one eye on CNN? Yes."

"We're waiting on pins and needles and hoping against hope," Echaveste added. The suspense is huge, she said, "even if it's just who we'll give the keys to."

Work went on outside the White House too, as workers constructed viewing stands for the Jan. 20 presidential inaugural parade.

With less than six weeks remaining before the big day, the workers did not have the luxury of taking a break to listen to the Supreme Court hearing. But most seemed to be on top of the news.

"Nobody knows who is going to be president," said carpenter Ricardo Dixon, "but we have to get these ready, for whoever wins."

*

Shogren reported from Washington and Serrano from Tallahassee. Times staff writers Janet Hook and Richard Simon in Washington contributed to this story.

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