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DECISION 2000

A Night of Seesawing for Bush, Supporters

November 08, 2000|MARIA L. La GANGA and MEGAN GARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

AUSTIN, Texas — Election night in this Texas capital, where the governor was angling for America's top job, was an awful lot like the weather here. If you don't like it now, just wait half an hour.

"It really keeps your heart beating," Christian Easterling, a junior at the nearby University of Texas, said as results dribbled in, bad then good and back again. "It's causing some anxiety, all this back and forth. But it's also fun."

The teeming downtown was an emotional oxymoron--festive and somber, hopeful and heartbroken, often a party, occasionally a wake. The statehouse was bathed in changing colored lights, the centerpiece of a massive outdoor celebration in honor of the local hero.

Live acts belted out such songs as "George Bush and Jesus." Through chilly breeze and raw drizzle, giant speakers blasted CNN election results. And therein was the problem.

The news for the Texas governor and GOP nominee for president swung wildly throughout the night. Bush won Texas and cheers went up. Michigan landed in the Gore column, and the pain was palpable, all long faces and shaking heads. Florida fell. Or at least appeared to.

Pennsylvania--the third in a trio of must-win states--went to Bush's Democratic rival for the White House, Vice President Al Gore. The crowd fell silent. Then the murmurs began: "It's not good." No, for Bush supporters, at this moment, it wasn't good at all.

"A little quiet here right now," said banker Don Kendrick, who drove 100 miles from Kerrville to join some 20,000 revelers here.

"It looks like we may have four more tough years," predicted David Vinyard, an advertising executive, appropriately garbed in a black cowboy hat. "A lot of depressed Texans here."

Including, perhaps, the chief executive of this second-biggest state in America. Or maybe not. Flashing a thumbs-up at a crowd of reporters and photographers, Bush dined with his large, extended family in a private room at the Shoreline Grill--one president, one nominee, one first lady, one hoping for the title.

The plan was to head to a suite at the nearby Four Seasons hotel for an all-Bush election-watch party. It was abruptly canceled around 7 p.m. CST, as early, important states went south. "He preferred to be at home," an aide said at the time, because he felt "his own home was more relaxing."

Less than two hours later, a pugnacious Bush, sitting with family members in the governor's mansion, called in the cameras and laid down the gauntlet, refusing to believe the bad news. Pennsylvania Gov. Thomas J. Ridge, a Republican, had called, he told reporters, and said the early exit polls were wrong.

"He's not conceding Pennsylvania, and I'm not either in the state of Pennsylvania," Bush said, legs crossed, hands wringing. "Nor are we in Florida . . . . I don't believe some of these states that they've called, like Florida."

He said he was upbeat, but it was hard to tell. His father, former President Bush, described himself as "nervous and proud." Asked about how a man gets through a night like this, the younger Bush insisted that "my whole future isn't on the line . . . I'm not worried about me getting through it."

Moments later, CNN revised its projections, putting critical Florida back in the "too-close-to-call column." After a long and somber stretch, Austin went wild. And then came a flood of more good news: Idaho, Montana and Utah went their way.

After a day of lying low, Bush senior advisor Karl Rove went on the airwaves spouting statistics and said his boss is the guy who will win Florida and criticizing CNN for projecting Gore as the winner.

"The Republican Panhandle of Florida is in the Central time zone, and y'all called Florida before the polls even closed in Panama City . . . and Pensacola," Rove insisted. "And we feel good about Florida. We have a fabulous organization there."

Hope returned. Bush was up in the electoral vote column, at least at that hour, 217 to 167. The magic number of 270 was still far away. Retiree Doreen Dusterhoft summed it all up from the Capitol crush: "It's scary, but it's wonderful."

*

Times staff writer Edwin Chen contributed to this story.

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