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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS | NEWS ANALYSIS

Either Way, Gore Facing Tough Choice

Decision: How far is he willing to go? Some fear a fight might hurt party's chances in 2002 election.

November 11, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN and HENRY WEINSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Vice President Al Gore is approaching an agonizing decision that could risk not only his future but his party's: whether to mount a legal challenge to the Florida vote if the final count next week certifies George W. Bush as the winner in the state that will decide the next president.

Although Gore's camp has spoken openly about pursuing litigation, aides made clear Friday that he has made no decision whether to join lawsuits filed by Florida residents challenging the ballot in Palm Beach County.

For Gore, despite apparently winning the popular vote, the choice could not be more excruciating. His campaign deeply believes that he trails in the state only because thousands of voters in Democratic-leaning Palm Beach County erroneously cast ballots for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan, or double-punched their ballot and were disqualified.

But if the campaign joins the lawsuits that Palm Beach residents have already filed to overturn the result, Gore risks appearing as though he is refusing to accept the voters' will--an image that some Democrats are already grumbling could hurt the party in the 2002 election.

If Gore is committed to contesting the results at every stage, Democrats would have several more options for challenging Texas Gov. Bush--including, at the most unlikely extreme, lobbying individual members of the electoral college to switch their votes on Dec. 18 from Bush to Gore in the name of upholding the popular will.

The real issue is a question of political will: How far does Gore want to take the challenge? And how long will his party stand with him if it fears his efforts are alienating the public?

So far, Democrats have been supportive of Gore's aggressive pursuit of a Florida recount. But a small, although growing, number are publicly expressing anxiety about pursuing the battle beyond that.

"For the sake of the country . . . there has to be some closure," Leon E. Panetta, President Clinton's former chief of staff, said Friday.

Democratic Sens. John B. Breaux (D-La.) and Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) have offered similar advice--as have former Sens. Bill Bradley of New Jersey and Dale Bumpers of Arkansas and the editorial pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times, two papers ordinarily favorable to Democrats in their editorials.

But those around Gore say he is receiving private encouragement from other Democrats. One Democratic consultant close to the congressional leadership says that although there is some concern that an extended legal challenge could hurt the party in 2002--particularly if it fails--"all in all, I think Democrats would rather have a president than a good midterm election."

In any case, Gore aides argue that the campaign's opinion about how to proceed is less important than the desire of Palm Beach County voters to challenge a process they believe disenfranchised them.

"There's nobody in a position to pull this plug; this is a process that goes on with or without us," says Laura Quinn, the communications director at the Democratic National Committee and a close Gore advisor. "The equivalent of what people are asking from Gore right now is not a concession but a withdrawal. They are basically saying they want Al Gore to withdraw from the race before the race is concluded."

The next step for the Gore campaign is clear: pressing for as exhaustive a recount as it can get in Florida. It has already urged four Democratic-leaning counties to recount ballots by hand; in theory, that could pick up ballots where voters did not punch the hole clearly enough to be read by a machine.

One Gore aide said that, in addition to potentially producing more votes for the vice president, the hand count could generate a critical piece of information. The Palm Beach County hand count, which will begin today, should give a sense of how many of the roughly 19,000 ballots disqualified for double-punching contained votes for both Gore and Buchanan, the aide said.

That information could be critical in the battle over public opinion. If a significant number of disqualified Palm Beach ballots contain votes for Gore and Buchanan, it could strengthen the vice president's case that a fair count would give him enough votes to carry the state--and thus an electoral college majority. And that could make it politically easier for Gore to join litigation against the Palm Beach County ballot, aides believe.

But if Gore goes to court in Florida, Republicans made clear on Thursday and Friday that they would likely challenge the results in other states that the vice president narrowly carried--particularly Oregon, Iowa and Wisconsin. Democrats in New Hampshire, which was carried by Bush, have discussed the pursuit of a recount there.

The first break point for Gore could come by next Friday, when under state law, all absentee ballots must be received. Florida counties have another week--until Nov. 24--to certify those ballots, although given the magnitude of the stakes the counties are expected to act more quickly.

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