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Austin Faithful of Both Camps Fight On

Limbo: The reality of the troubled election, escalating rhetoric and posturing is inescapable in the Texas capital. 'It's a Mess!' a San Antonio paper summed up.


AUSTIN, Texas — Even though they remain convinced their man won, for campaign aides and volunteers to George W. Bush the days after the election have been filled with melancholy and sadness.

They gather in bars here at night, drinking and talking, smoking cigarettes and shaking their head about the state of the election. Some victory.

"Anyway you look at this, it's screwed up," said one aide who, like most Bush staffers, preferred not to give his name. "This is just really screwed up."

It is a bittersweet mood that has descended on much of the capital of the Lone Star State. In a town where, win or lose, rabid Longhorn football fans at the University of Texas always stand together and sing "The Eyes of Texas," no one knows quite how to feel about what has transpired.

And even the most partisan Bush supporters say that, as Americans, they are distressed by how this election has played out. They fear that the next presidency, no matter who is sworn in Jan. 20, will be tainted.

At the Governor's Mansion, the angry gather with their homemade signs and hard feelings:

"Honesty??? Integrity??? Ballot fraud!" and "Honk for a revote," placards read.

For the opposition: "Get over it!" and "If you can read you are a Republican."

In Austin, home to the governor and Republican presidential candidate, no matter what side you come down on, dismay underlies the fury.

Chuck Higdon, clean-cut in his button-down shirt and khaki pants, was one of those at the mansion Friday. He carried no sign but wore his frustration on his face, his mouth twitching in a visible struggle to mind his manners.

"I'm a Bush man. [Democrat] Al Gore needs to do the right thing. They recounted the vote. Bush won," he said in escalating volume to a young man on a bicycle he never before met.

"At what cost do you win?" countered shaggy-haired Alex Hendrex, a junior high school teacher. "Do you win at any cost? Do you win even if you stole it from somebody?" And who could answer his question?

The cost was on the mind of nearly everyone, from the Bush staff and young volunteers who spent months on the road toiling for their cause to a woman sweeping a storefront stoop along the majestic avenue that begins at the steps of the Texas Capitol.

"It's a bad omen. I think it's really sad that whoever wins has such a bad start," said the sweeper, Sandy Bumstead. A massage therapist who voted for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, Bumstead says the election is all her stressed out clients have been talking about.

The reality of the troubled election, the escalating rhetoric and political posturing is inescapable in Austin, where Bush's rain-soaked victory celebration was aborted after it became clear that the television networks had prematurely declared the governor the winner.

A headline Friday in the San Antonio Express-News screamed: "It's a Mess!"

On the streets of Austin, where televisions at sidewalk cafes were tuned to all-news networks and coffee shop patrons hunched over newspapers long into the afternoon Friday, the sentiment that something had gone wrong was a rare point of agreement.

"Look, if Al Gore thinks the election is stolen from him, he's right to keep going," said Patrick Collins, who was waiting at a bus stop on a corner where a tattered Texas state flag flapped in the wind.

"It's depressing," said Higdon, the Bush booster who was so upset by the goings on he brought his wife and infant daughter down to the mansion to make his point. "Whoever wins, you can't really stand up on the stump and claim you have a mandate, that the people chose you."

And as he walked away from Hendrex, the shaggy-haired bicyclist, Higdon offered this:

"You know what I hope most of all? I hope I never have to go through this again."

"Amen, brother," Hendrex said. "Amen."

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