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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Gore, Bush Camps Are Playing Chess--Inside a Boxing Ring

Strategy: Campaign struggles behind them, both sides field teams of statesmen, attorneys and foot soldiers for a new kind of political battlefield.

November 16, 2000|FAYE FIORE and MEGAN GARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Through an election that defied every prediction and turned convention on its head, warriors for Al Gore and George W. Bush had always been certain of one thing: the Finish Line. But they awoke after election day to find the tape moved, the race still on and the course so uncharted no one is sure how to run it.

The Bush and Gore campaigns officially disbanded at the end of the workday last Friday. What sprang up in their places was Campaign 2000--The Sequel, a weird hybrid of elder statesmen, election law attorneys and a winnowed crew of tired foot soldiers trained for battle when the game is suddenly diplomacy.

They are like prizefighters who have switched to chess but still have their gloves on. The players seem ham-handed at times, the tenor pugnacious and the rhetoric still biting, even though voters appear more in the mood for a dispassionate response to the election's confusing coda.

"By the time you get to election day, you've been working against the other side for so long and so hard it's very difficult to pull back," said Dan Schnur, a veteran GOP campaign operative. "But the staffs working for both men need to somehow figure out a way to shift out of campaign mode."

Bush Setting Hasn't Changed

Over at Bush headquarters in Austin, Texas, it still looks like the same campaign, right down to the setting--a suite of offices on several floors of a gleaming marble and chrome skyscraper. The walls are covered with posters. A blow-up of George W. and Laura Bush still hangs in the hall behind glass doors that are now locked.

But the real action is in Florida, and the Austin ranks don't know quite what to do. They wander through in jeans and casual shoes, rolling up "Bush/Cheney" banners and mumbling about victory plans gone awry. Leaning upside-down against a wall is an angry placard: "Stop playing games with our Constitution, Mr. Gore!"

The wagons are circled, security is tight and the media camp out for hours in the long narrow halls of the building's atrium. Phone calls from reporters who days ago were spoon-fed every election detail go unanswered. But signs of unbending confidence--or at least the strategic appearance of it--are in plain sight in the hall: white plastic mail crates labeled "Inaugural" and "WH Job Appts."

For the Gore camp, the transition from election crusade to newly incarnated "Recount Committee" has been more abrupt. The devoted who toiled frenetically in a room in Nashville called "The Pit" pulled up stakes Friday and high-tailed it out of the state that gave its 11 electoral votes to Bush, possibly costing its famous son the presidency in the process.

They sent a team to Florida and established their new headquarters on Capitol Hill in 2 1/2 suites on the ground floor of the beige cement monolith that houses the Democratic Party's national committee. The surroundings are spartan--long tables with computers and phones, nothing to speak of on the walls. The staff has shrunk from 250 to about 30. A lobby security guard keeps visitors out; tours are discouraged.

Senior Gore strategist Mark D. Fabiani, who was supposed to be on a Southwest Airlines flight to San Diego last week to return to his wife and children in La Jolla, was waylaid to Washington and is living in a hotel. Here, he shapes a different kind of message--no more sound bites on Social Security, no more marshaling the battle for the Midwest. This campaign has one note now: recount.

The rhythms are different.

"It's much more of a low-key effort," said Fabiani, whose previous mission was to shape a seamless Gore message in a campaign fought on many fronts. "The vice president has been resting, spending time with his family. We're no longer in an effort to have spokespeople and press releases and all the traditional earmarks of a campaign happening every day. This is shifting very much toward a discussion involving senior statespeople of the party."

But a recount is war by any other name, and old battle plans die hard.

"Clearly the lawyers are the spear points," said James P. Pinkerton, a GOP consultant who worked in the White House for Bush's father. "But you still need spin and you still need talking points and phony-baloney manipulation of public opinion. What Republican or Democrat wouldn't want to ride to the sound of the guns as this election thing continues?"

So in the hours that followed the election too close to call, each side essentially reverted to type. Gore the Fighter came out swinging, with his surrogates threatening lawsuits that scared even some Democrats. Bush the Confident pretended he had already won, publicly assembling his would-be Cabinet and appearing to claim a prize the American people had not yet handed him.

As the recount wore on, Bush and his top aides backed away from transition talk, with the Texas governor sequestered at his ranch, about 90 miles from the state capital.

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