In the escalating conflict over the presidential election, Republicans are considering demanding recounts in enough close states to possibly push Al Gore below an electoral college majority even if he wins Florida.
One senior GOP operative, who asked not to be identified, said the Republican National Committee has dispatched aides to examine the possibility of recounts in Iowa and Wisconsin--both of which Democrat Gore now leads by narrow margins. And, he said, Republicans could seek a recount in Oregon if Gore holds the lead that he took there Thursday.
Those warnings suggest that the struggle for Florida, which has centered on Democratic allegations that the Palm Beach County ballot was flawed, could trigger a cascading series of challenges across the country, all designed to prevent either side from claiming the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House.
The senior GOP operative said that, if the Democrats pressed the challenge in Florida too far, the result could be analogous to World War I, when a local conflict in the Balkans eventually produced a continent-wide war.
"Once you start the process, the idea that it is going to stop in a couple of Democratic counties in Florida is ludicrous," the official said. "It is going to go on everywhere. You are sliding toward a very dangerous situation that is not going to be over in a week or two."
Indeed, in a year when the candidates finished less than five percentage points apart in fully 17 states, both sides have plenty of opportunities for further challenges. In an interview, New Hampshire Democratic Party chairwoman Kathleen Sullivan acknowledged that she contacted the secretary of state there Wednesday to raise the possibility of a recount; Texas Gov. George W. Bush won the state by less than 8,000 votes.
Sullivan said the chance of the party demanding a recount was "remote." But she said Democrats have not ruled it out; under New Hampshire law they have until Monday to request a new tally.
Both sides still are hesitant about initiating challenges in new states. Yet, at the same time, emotions clearly are rising. At a news conference Thursday, for instance, Gore campaign chairman Bill Daley said of the Bush camp, "I believe their actions to try to presumptively crown themselves the victors, to try to put in place a transition, run the risk of dividing the American people and creating a sense of confusion."
Fired back the senior Republican official: "Being lectured about the sanctity of ballots by anybody named Daley is more than any Republican can stand." That was a reference to allegations that Daley's father, the late Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, engineered ballot-box stuffing in 1960 that helped John F. Kennedy win the White house.
Looming over all of this maneuvering is the extraordinarily narrow electoral college margin separating Gore and Republican Bush. At the moment, Gore leads in states that account for 255 electoral votes. Bush leads in states that total 246 votes. New Mexico (with five electoral votes), Florida (25) and Oregon (seven) still are too close to call, though Gore has taken a 3,375-vote lead in Oregon with 99% of precincts reporting.
If all the states now in each man's camp remained there, whoever wins Florida would exceed the 270 electoral votes needed for victory. But if a recount gave New Hampshire and its four electoral votes to Gore, Bush would be short even if he wins Florida (assuming Gore holds Oregon). Conversely, if recounts denied Gore the 25 electoral votes of Iowa, Wisconsin and Oregon, the vice president would fall just short of a majority even if he wins Florida.
Both parties are mulling their options with one eye on the legal system and the other on the court of public opinion. Bush and Gore are constrained by the same challenge: establishing legitimacy for their actions and the ultimate result in what is sure to be a disputed conclusion no matter who wins.
"Both of them, if they become president, need it to be seen as a legitimate outcome," says political scientist Gary Jacobson of UC San Diego.
Democrats say that, in pressing his case, Gore must not appear as though he is a sore loser demanding a rematch because he seemingly fell short in the contest; that concern could inhibit Democrats from opening challenges in states other than Florida.
Conversely, Republicans say that Bush, while trying to project confidence that he has won the election, must be careful not to appear presumptuous in claiming the mantle too quickly.
That balancing act played out Thursday behind closed doors in Austin, Texas. According to several GOP sources, the Bush campaign, expecting that Florida officials would produce a final recount Thursday that certified the governor as the winner, planned to announce this morning that its transition team would be led by running mate Dick Cheney.