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SPECIAL REPORT / Decision 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Through the Wringer

Party Gatherings Were an Emotional Roller-Coaster on an Unforgettable Night

November 09, 2000|JOSH MEYER JEFFREY L. RABIN and NICHOLAS RICCARDI | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

They were dead.

It was past midnight and the networks were describing George W. Bush as the "president-elect." The glum Democratic faithful in the bar of the Biltmore Hotel, the party's L.A. headquarters, eyed their gin and tonics more closely than the TV monitors.

Then it happened.

"They're recounting eight precincts in Florida!" cried one woman, bolting into the lobby to stop a friend from leaving with the rest of the defeated and the downtrodden.

One by one, the Democrats turned from their drinks and their dispirited conversations. They rose from their stools. Clusters formed in front of the televisions. Was this really happening?

Across town, at Republican headquarters in the Airport Marriott, the other side was asking the same question.

"No!" the few remaining Republicans gasped collectively, as Gore officials took to the airwaves to greet the news that Florida--and the race for president--was once again too close to call.

"It's a nightmare," said Caroline Alexa McBride, dropping to the floor in prayer.

Well into the morning Wednesday, tortured political junkies rode a roller-coaster of dashed and revived expectations. Long after most of their colleagues had gone home, the few, the hopeful and the soused realized that they were witnesses to the most dramatic election night of their lives.

To experience it in the Biltmore gave Los Angeles Democrats an extra set of goose bumps. This, some remembered, was where Mayor Tom Bradley and his aides went to sleep election night in 1982 with their candidate as governor-elect. They woke up to find that exit polls had been wrong and George Deukmejian had been elected in the closest California gubernatorial race of the century.

This time, as Gore took an early lead that included predictions of victory in Florida, hundreds of Democratic revelers uncorked cheers while the networks added one state after another to the vice president's column.

Then the networks snatched away Florida. The Democrats watched in agony as Bush pulled ahead in other states while the hours passed. Heather Hutt and six friends bowed their heads at the bar, tequila shots in hand. "If the Bible Belt is up with coffee, praying for Bush," Hutt said, "we're going to sit up at the bar, praying for Gore."

When the networks handed Florida to Bush, declaring him the next president of the United States, Hutt and friends gave up and ended their vigil. Television crews packed up. The Biltmore cleared out as most of the faithful lost faith. Tearful couples hugged and staggered away.

Peter Cohl, the president of the Santa Monica College Democrats, trudged to his car and drove home to the Westside, never imagining he would return. Others, like Joseph Rosendo, wouldn't give up.

"Any glimmer of hope," said Rosendo, wandering the Biltmore bar, holding aloft two hands with crossed fingers.

Midnight passed and then Rosendo got his glimmer. On the TV, Dan Rather withdrew CBS' assertion that Bush would be the next president. The crowd went wild. People jumped. Strangers hugged. Drinks flowed. Suddenly the bar was packed again.

"Oh, my God," screamed one woman, watching the shrinking margin in Florida. "It's under a thousand votes!"

Another, Barbara Fouch, was incredulous. "I've covered elections in Haiti and Angola, and I've never seen anything like this!" she cried. As if on cue, she turned to the tube, and there, for all to see, was a new electoral count. With Florida out of Bush's column, he was now below the magic 270 votes. Fouch grabbed her head and joined the room in one huge primal scream.

"Unbelievable!" said Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles).

Party elders descended from their suites. At his home, taking one last look at the results on the Internet before going to sleep, Peter Cohl was jolted. He got in his car, sped back to the Biltmore and beelined it for the bar.

"Only the die-hards stuck around, and the drunks," said playwright Tulsa Kenney, grinning as she hung off her bar stool. "And here we all are. The true Democrats, baby."

Foot soldiers and political heavyweights alike were glued to the monitors. Antonio Villaraigosa, mayoral candidate and former Assembly speaker, said softly: "I have never seen a night quite like this."

Neither had Republicans at the Marriott.

Packed into a cavernous ballroom, they reeled from Gore's apparent victory in Florida, then roared when the Sunshine State was declared back in play.

"Florida is absolutely Bush country," California GOP honcho Shawn Steel assured the boisterous crowd. "Folks, Bush is our president."

It got only sweeter and more deafening by the time the television networks declared "Bush Wins." In an instant, Republican fists shot into the air. People exchanged high-fives. Chants of "Bush, Bush, Bush" rocked the building.

The cacophony awakened 5-month-old Travis Coombs from a sound sleep.

"We're so excited," the baby's mother, Stephanie Coombs of Claremont, exulted. "It's an answer to our prayers!"

Hundreds streamed out into the streets, waving stuffed elephants in victory.

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