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Seasoned Democratic Army Hits the Shores of Florida

Partisans: Boston's Whouley leads troops in Florida to oversee recounts. The party operatives have one goal--whittle away at Bush's slim vote margin.


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — This is the Democrats' last, best stand--their final hope to find non-tallied votes that could put Al Gore in the White House. Here in Broward County, a Democrat can hardly take a step without running into a party operative from somewhere else in the country.

To scrounge for every last vote, Gore has flooded Fort Lauderdale with tough, seasoned Democrats, the sort who are used to keeping wafflers in line and to count and recount votes until they know exactly what it will take to outdo their opponents. Many of the hired hands speak with a Boston brogue--no accident considering the man who was dispatched here to do the impossible for Gore one more time.

To win in Broward, Gore summoned his best on-the-ground political operative: Michael Whouley, the Boston political consultant who helped deliver Iowa and New Hampshire for him during the Democratic presidential primaries and who, on election night, vigilantly phoned the vice president at the last minute to head him off from delivering a concession speech to supporters in Nashville.

Whouley's loyal Massachusetts contingent is only the most visible in a small army of pros, all camped here for the biggest trove of all: virgin, non-retallied votes.

Broward is perhaps the strongest Gore county in the state, a seaside enclave where 68% of the 588,000 votes cast in the Nov. 7 election went for their man. Democrats feel that if they're going to pick up more votes for Gore anywhere, it is here in a resort town known best for its yearly invasion of party-obsessed college students.

For the last week, Whouley--a largely invisible presence here but whose name is reverently whispered by the Bostonians doing his bidding--has led a team of as many as 500 loyalists assigned to do whatever is necessary to whittle away at Bush's 300-vote statewide margin.

Whouley Dispatches Aides, Issues Orders

In the chaotic first day after the election, the first contingent of Whouley's Minutemen, many of whom have worked together in the political trenches for decades, began arriving in Florida. Whouley began issuing orders from Palm Beach, deciding each day where to send fresh troops.

"It was a visceral reaction for Whouley to get here, to get us all here immediately," said Boston lobbyist Paul Pezzula, one set of Whouley's eyes and ears here.

Whouley, 42, is a former ward boss whom Gore calls "the Brain." He whipped the vice president's faltering primary organizations into shape earlier this year and was reported to be the architect of Gore's successful town hall meetings.

In Broward, Whouley has tapped John Sasso, a longtime Boston political consultant, as his point man. Sasso, who was the top aide in Michael S. Dukakis' 1988 presidential campaign, was deliberately vague about the precise details of his assignment when interviewed briefly Thursday.

"Who knows what I'm doing here, exactly?" he said. "I'm helping with the recount."

Enough Boston lawyers have descended on Broward County that one Massachusetts lawyer guessed that they could field a quorum for a meeting of the Boston Bar Assn. Responding to a mass e-mail seeking help in Florida, some fanned out to Tallahassee to plot court strategy to keep the hand counts going. Others filed motions and fired off memos every time this state's Republican secretary of state, Katherine Harris, set up what Democrats saw as another roadblock to Gore's march to an electoral college victory.

Imported Democrats Go After Votes

But at the Broward County Emergency Operations Center, the Bostonians and other imported Democrats were doing what they had learned years ago at political conventions and primary nights: going for the votes.

Inside a hulking, custard-colored building that serves as an emergency shelter for hurricanes, from 50 to 100 tables were set up. With two county employees and two party observers--one Democrat, one Republican--at each table, the scene resembled a high-stakes bridge tournament.

The fiercest battles of the day were waged on the steaming hot blacktop of the parking lot in front of the recount center. Every hour or so, Democrats and Republicans dispatched lawyers into the thicket of waiting reporters to fire off accusations.

First they bickered over the chads found on the floor. Then the Democrats accused the Republicans of stall tactics. Then came the Republican lawsuit seeking an injunction against Broward's canvassing board. Then the two sides argued over the injunction's chances.

Suddenly, they all paused to gaze upward. High above, a small white plane towed a banner. It trailed a Republican message that played on the ultimatum delivered by the wicked witch in the "Wizard of Oz": "Surrender Gorethy."

In Broward, even some Republicans were impressed with the Democrats' ferocity. "They're definitely beating us at the spin game," said lawyer Shari McCartney, part of the Broward Republican legal team. "We're being made out to be the antithesis of the democratic process."

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