WASHINGTON — It was like a seed. For Al Gore and his senior field commanders, almost everything they did during the historic postelection battle over Florida and the presidency grew out of what was there at the beginning.
Events had an impact. So did forces and individuals beyond their control.
But from the earliest strategy meetings, the vice president and his top aides initiated the recount battle plagued by a gnawing sense that the very legitimacy of their effort was open to question. And to the end, while never doubting they had votes enough to win--if only they could get them counted--the Gore camp feared that going one step too far would exhaust the public's patience and end the game.
The opposite mind-set prevailed in the camp of George W. Bush. To the Republicans, Gore was simply trying to snatch away a prize that they already had won. They saw the recount battle as a holy war.
"We thought it was a valid election," says GOP election law guru Ben Ginsberg. Case closed.
Did Gore and his senior advisors miss pivotal opportunities because they lacked the same conviction? Did their fear of antagonizing the public cause them to shy away from more aggressive steps that could have brought victory?
The game will be replayed by scholars and politicians for decades. Change a decision here or a deadline there and the country might have got a different president.
That will be hindsight. But in the fog of the battle, both sides made on-the-spot decisions dictated by their beliefs and gut feelings.
Here is what participants say about how they saw their choices and made their decisions at six critical junctures in the fight:
The first major decisions were forced on both sides less than 48 hours after election night, almost before their hastily assembled teams had unpacked their bags in Tallahassee, Fla. The decision makers had too little time, too little information, too little sleep. And the choices they had to make were fraught with risk.
Yet these decisions would define--and potentially limit--the scope of the battle. Opportunities given up might be gone forever.
Bush and his advisors gathering in Florida had to decide what kind of defense to mount. They could stand pat, fighting to protect their razor-thin lead. Or they could counterattack, seeking additional votes to offset gains the Gore forces might make.
The entire Bush high command would take part in the final decision, with Ginsberg--the campaign's chief counsel--playing a key role. In 1998, Ginsberg had helped Florida's GOP Sen. Connie Mack stave off an absentee ballot recount effort by Democratic challenger Buddy McKay.
The day before the presidential election, Ginsberg had lunch with a group of Republican lawyers in Austin, Texas. When someone raised the possibility of a recount, "we all agreed it would never happen," he says. "It would be a lawyer's nightmare."
By 4 a.m. on Nov. 8, the day after the election, the nightmare had arrived. Ginsberg woke up GOP election law specialists across the country before he flew off to Tallahassee.
Under Florida law, candidates can challenge the outcome of an election in two phases. In the first, the protest phase, Bush and Gore had 48 hours to notify any of Florida's 67 counties that they wanted vote totals there reexamined. Local officials would decide how to respond.
The second phase would come after Florida's secretary of state--in this case Bush campaign official Katherine Harris--had certified the result. The loser then could "contest" the election, and the issue would move into the courts.
The Bush commanders considered but rejected initiating the protest phase by calling for recounts in some northern counties, where they believed they could pick up enough new votes to neutralize any Democratic gains in the south.
GOP voters, they decided, had had no significant trouble voting anywhere in the state. And strategically, Ginsberg says, "we felt it was important to validate the results of the election rather than challenge them. Otherwise, we might have cast additional doubt on the validity of the election and slowed down the process."
The choices were more complicated for Gore's lieutenants.
Some Florida legal experts argued that forgoing protests and moving straight to a contest phase would give them more time and remove the struggle from the political arena and into the courts.
Politically, however, the risks seemed prohibitive. Everything depended on posting more votes--not just the outcome but the public perception that Gore had legitimate grounds for dragging out the final determination of the winner.
So they would protest immediately. But where?
When former Secretary of State Warren Christopher joined other top Gore strategists at the Governor's Inn in the state capital that Wednesday afternoon, less than 30 hours before the decision deadline, uncertainty reigned.