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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Florida Recount Underway

Presidency Hangs in Balance; 19,000 Ballots Disqualified

Drama Shifted on Sharp Eye, Cell Phones

Election: In depth of wild night, a Gore aide barely halted his boss' public concession to Bush.

November 09, 2000|RICHARD T. COOPER and JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

NASHVILLE — From the very beginning, going all the way back to last winter when he'd almost come a cropper in Iowa and New Hampshire, Al Gore has counted on a tough 42-year-old ex-ward boss from Massachusetts named Michael Whouley. He could pull the fat out of the fire.

Late, almost too late on election night, Whouley did it again--one last time.

With a little help from the Internet, a cell phone and some weary aides working the boiler room at Gore headquarters in Nashville, he pulled the vice president back from the brink of publicly declaring he had lost the 2000 presidential election and, instead, breathed new life into an apparently doomed Democratic ticket.

By doing so, Whouley joined Gore, George W. Bush, their senior aides, television network anchors and their private pollsters, and more than 100 million of the nation's voters in producing one of the most extraordinary nights in the history of American politics--a chain of premature judgments, awkward recantations and hairpin turns that left both camps walking on eggshells and the American people unsure who would be their next president.

It was an election night people would tell their grandchildren about, a night out of the past--the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon race that hinged on a handful of votes in Chicago, or 1948, when Harry S. Truman upset Tom Dewey. A night of evaporating certainties the likes of which had supposedly vanished--become impossible, really--in the Information Age.

It was shortly after 2 a.m. CST Wednesday in Nashville when Whouley stepped up.

By then, television anchors had put both candidates and country through the wringer four times: First, they had declared Gore victorious in Florida. Then, they retracted that, paused a few hours, and awarded the state and the presidency to Bush. Finally, they admitted they could not tell who had won.

Half an hour before, Gore had accepted as fact news reports that he was trailing by 50,000 votes in Florida and would inevitably lose the last undecided state with enough electoral college votes to give him victory. He retired with his family to their 10th-floor hotel suite and called Bush at the Governor's Mansion in Austin, Texas, to concede defeat.

Jubilant Bush aides began preparing the governor to go before the cameras to accept victory and give sleepy citizens their first glimpse of the president-elect, while across the country, in cold, rain-swept Nashville, Secret Service agents were forming up a motorcade in the underground garage of Gore's hotel to carry him to the War Memorial Plaza. There, he would break the sad news to several thousand supporters who had stood all night at the foot of giant television screens watching the news and waiting for him in the drizzle.

As he had done hundreds of times before, slender, curly-haired Michael Feldman, the 32-year-old chief of the campaign's traveling staff, squeezed into a van several cars back from Gore's armor-plated limousine. This time, instead of excited local campaign workers lining the sidewalk, a handful of red-eyed Gore aides watched in dejected silence.

The procession swung out into the wet, empty streets and gathered speed. It was only two blocks from the memorial when Feldman's Skypager went off. The message on the tiny screen was cryptic and hard to read in the bad light: "Call Switchbd" it said. "Call holding with Mike Whuley. ASAP."

Without hesitation, Feldman used his cell phone to call campaign chairman Bill Daley, who was riding in another car in the motorcade, then patched both of them through to Whouley.

What Whouley wanted to report was that, back in the boiler room, his minions had made a startling discovery: Driven as much by habit as hope, they had logged on to the Web site of the Florida secretary of state and found that, while the networks reported Gore a hopeless 50,000 votes behind, the actual count showed Bush ahead by a mere 6,000 votes--with thousands still untallied.

By the time the procession pulled up to the memorial, Feldman remembered later, Whouley reported that Bush's lead had shrunk to 900 votes, then 500, then 200.

Gore was out of his car and striding toward the speaker's platform when Daley reached his elbow. He steered the vice president into the suite of "holding rooms" the Secret Service has ready for every candidate at every stop on a daily schedule. Family and senior aides crowded in after them.

There was no television set. Cell phones popped out. Almost everyone was calling someone for information and advice. The vice president listened, leaning back in a chair with his cowboy boots up on a table.

"It became very clear to him that the world had changed," an aide remembered.

About 2:15 a.m., Daley called Don Evans, his counterpart in the Bush hierarchy, and told him that, in light of the changing situation in Florida, Gore's telephoned concession was off.

How was Gore feeling now, someone asked a little later. "A lot better than I did an hour and a half ago," Gore replied.

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