WASHINGTON — In public, leaders of the Democratic Party have rallied around Vice President Al Gore and his legal team, offering support for their pursuit of a recount to find out who really won the presidential election in Florida.
In private, however, some leading Democrats say that if the recount doesn't go Gore's way, he should consider conceding the race to Republican Texas Gov. George W. Bush--without pursuing lengthy legal appeals.
"At this point, the 'gracious loser' role is not something anyone in the party wants him to do," said one Democrat who has advised Gore in the past. "But at some point, he has to consider whether it makes sense to keep going. He can bow out, have a good life for four years, have a lot of goodwill out there and be the front-runner [for the Democratic presidential nomination] four years from now. He may have to ask himself the question: Is it better to create a president of the United States, or create a constitutional crisis?"
So far, Democratic leaders aren't giving that advice directly to Gore or his aides. "Not until all the votes are counted do we have to face that issue," the advisor said. "I think we've got a couple of days."
But if the vote count is not close, these Democrats warned, public pressure may mount on Gore to concede.
"If the election results have not been officially resolved by Dec. 18, when the electors meet, there will be huge pressure on whoever is trailing in the electoral count, whether it is Gore or Bush," a second prominent Democrat said.
Florida officials have said it may take another five days to certify recounted ballot results from the state's 67 counties--and as long as another week to count ballots sent in by Floridians living overseas.
The party's leaders have publicly supported Gore's pursuit of a recount and his complaints about the ballots in Palm Beach County, which apparently confused many voters.
Even those Democrats who expressed private qualms said they backed Gore's demand for a recount. But if the vice president presses a longshot legal challenge, they said, at least some members of Congress will ask whether it is the wisest course for the party.
"Democrats want what all Americans want: a fair and accurate count of every ballot, for every office, but particularly for president of the United States," Democratic National Committee Chairman Joe Andrew said. "We want the process to be clear, trustworthy and credible. We want all Americans to feel confident in the process and its results."
"This process needs to be both expeditious and fair. But if those two conflict, we need to err on the side of fairness," Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said through a spokesman.
"The situation involving the ballots . . . certainly has to be resolved, and a remedy found," he said.
And Senate Democratic Whip Harry Reid of Nevada called on Bush to agree to a new vote in Palm Beach County. "I think Gov. Bush should let the process go forward," he said. "I don't think Vice President Gore has to be concerned about pushing this too far."
An advisor to Gore who is working on the legal challenges to the Florida results said the vice president believes the public will support his course.
"The American people will understand why we are pursuing this. I don't see any great rising up from the American people asking us to cut this short," he said. "Why would you close the door and concede if you don't even have the results yet?"
The nation's most prominent Democrat, President Clinton, has stayed out of the fray entirely.
White House spokesman Jake Siewert refused to disclose Clinton's view of the controversy, and said that the president had not offered any advice to Gore or the Gore campaign. "Those are decisions that are best made by the campaign or the candidate who's on the ballot," Siewert said.
"It's the vice president's decision," echoed Robert S. Strauss, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. "We've got to separate the law and politics; they're two different things. . . . There is a process going on that should be fair and deliberate. We're used to instantaneous results in this country, and we're not having it this time."
"It's a question of how far does the candidate who's behind want to pursue the case. It seems to me it's not only a legal decision, it's very much a political decision," said Dario Moreno, professor of political science at Florida International University and an expert on Florida politics.
"The more this drags on, the less valuable the presidency becomes. Whoever gets sworn in as president on Jan. 20 is not going to have much of a mandate. . . . If you keep your eyes on the prize, the prize is getting less and less valuable as this drags on."
Times staff writer Eric Lichtblau contributed to this story.