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CAMPAIGN 2000

And on the Last Day, They Did Not Rest in Quest for Votes

November 07, 2000|CATHLEEN DECKER | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

So now came the last day, when the cities and states blurred together into one long campaign event, when the bones ached and the mind wandered, when the presidential candidates dozed sitting up during radio interviews and confused death taxes with the death penalty.

They could have been forgiven for thinking that the light at the end of the tunnel was an oncoming train, so brutal was the last aching reach for the presidency. For Al Gore, the last day meant six cities in five states, closing in Tennessee. For George W. Bush, it was five cities in five states before ending mercifully in Texas.

In Waterloo, Iowa, Gore hustled to the John Deere plant before dawn, rain cascading down, to grab hands and get himself on the morning network shows. "We're not getting much sleep in these final hours because there are so many places to talk with people," Gore said.

In Chattanooga and later in Green Bay and Davenport and Bentonville and Austin, Bush riffed through a highly abridged version of his speech, counting down as he went. The night before in Florida, he had anticipated the countdown: "Five more speeches!"

Among the candidates and those who have long labored for them, the bittersweet mixed with nervous anticipation. The bubble of unreality in which they had lived for more than a year was about to pop. And no one quite knew whether their hearts would break along with it.

In most presidential elections, today's outcome is known the day before, and euphoria breaks through. In 1992, when it was abundantly clear that Democrat Bill Clinton was on his way to the White House, aides danced in the aisles the night before the election, and the candidate himself broke down in tears as he landed in his native Arkansas.

But this election was too close for mania. Anticipation was welded tightly to uncertainty. All anyone knew for sure was that tonight it would be all over.

In the exhaustion, even the most mundane moments took on a certain poignancy. "This is the last day I'm going to say this: Time to board the buses," said a Bush aide in Orlando, Fla., early Monday as he tried to herd reporters aboard. "This is the last filing center," the aide said later in Green Bay as reporters packed up the room where they wrote and filed their stories.

Each of the candidates proclaimed a firm belief in his chances for victory, knowing that the scent of defeat can be smelled by voters a few time zones away. There was no mistaking their fuel, a mix of hope and caffeine.

"I'm feeling good," exclaimed Democratic vice presidential nominee Joseph I. Lieberman, who seemed to have reveled in his turn in the spotlight more than the other three major-party nominees this year. "I've gone into some adrenaline overdrive here. I'm going to try to sleep now, but I don't know if I can."

For Gore, whose campaign has been marked by more ups and downs than the recent stock market, Monday opened in Waterloo--after little more than two hours' sleep, he said--and took him to St. Louis; Flint, Mich.; and Miami about midnight Monday. Then he was on to Tampa, Fla., early today, before heading home to Carthage, Tenn.

His final stop of the campaign, Gore noted with a chuckle, was "after my opponent's gone to bed."

In Waterloo, Gore hit the John Deere plant in the dark, then ventured to the Black Hawk County Democratic headquarters. Under a driving rain, with temperatures riding the low 40s, 100 people had gathered.

"This is the hard core out there," Gore's wife, Tipper, said.

"The fate of our cause is in your hands," Gore told the crowd. "The fate of prosperity . . . is in your hands."

Invigorating words, but the candidate who uttered them was showing signs of exhaustion. During a series of morning interviews with distant radio stations, Gore closed his eyes sleepily while the interviewers posed their questions. But when it came time to answer, the words flew with robot-like efficiency.

Throughout, he gulped coffee and Diet Coke, popped throat lozenges and yawned.

Campaign chairman Bill Daley, born into the Chicago mayoral dynasty, instinctively understood the strange mix of up and down that characterizes the final hours of any campaign.

"He's pumped," Daley said of Gore. "I mean, he's tired . . . but he seems pretty pumped and pretty positive."

Lieberman, with his wife, Hadassah, leapfrogged over the eastern United States in a 30-hour finale to his campaign to become the first Jew elected to the executive branch. In St. Paul, Minn., on Monday morning, 100 supporters huddled under plastic ponchos and umbrellas, cheering wildly as the couple took the stage.

"I don't want to put too much pressure on you, but the future of America is on your shoulders," the nominee said, uttering words that could have been said by any of the candidates to any of the crowds, given the tight race.

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