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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

A Day of Emotional Ups and Downs for Bush, Gore Camps

November 18, 2000|DOYLE McMANUS and JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — In a political campaign like no other, it was a day of wild mood swings.

At the vice president's Victorian residence here, Al Gore was only five minutes away from making a tight-lipped statement urging his supporters not to lose heart when the news flashed across his television screen: The Florida Supreme Court had come down on his side.

In Austin, Texas, at Gov. George W. Bush's white-pillared mansion and in his campaign headquarters near the state Capitol, the spreading grins of Friday morning melted away.

In Tallahassee, Fla., two teams of super lawyers, one in a cluttered warren of offices in the George Bush Republican Headquarters Building, the other cloistered in a powerhouse Democratic law firm, huddled over faxed copies of the court's decision, searching for hidden meaning.

In this case, the meaning was all too clear.

"The word 'not' is in capital letters," Gore's chief lawyer, Warren Christopher, pointed out to his associates with uncharacteristic glee. The Florida Supreme Court was telling two largely Democratic counties that they were NOT to stop recounting votes--exactly what Gore and Christopher wanted.

James A. Baker III, Christopher's Republican counterpart, knew what the word meant too. Bush was "disappointed, of course," he told reporters.

In the Gore camp, the half-joking catch phrase of the last 10 days has been: "The worm turns." On Friday afternoon, Gore spokesman Mark D. Fabiani said: "That worm is getting awfully dizzy."

Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer, in Austin, agreed. "After being told by the networks that Gov. Bush was the president, after hearing him referred to as president-elect and after watching the last 10 days, we've gotten good at riding the roller coaster. Today we had two rides for the price of one."

Earlier Ruling a Victory for Bush

The day began with a major legal victory for Bush. In a Tallahassee courtroom, Leon County Circuit Judge Terry P. Lewis declared that Secretary of State Katherine Harris had acted properly when she announced that she would certify the winner of the election today, without waiting for manual recounts in two Democratic counties.

There were cheers and high-fives at Bush headquarters in Austin. The governor, who had been in seclusion at his ranch near Waco, headed back to the state capital--to be ready, aides said, to accept certification as president-elect.

Republicans were buoyant. In Washington, Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), Bush's top contact man in Congress, suggested that the public would begin thinking quickly of the Texan as president-elect. It was just "a matter of days," he said, before Gore would concede.

Gore and his backers were grim. In a conference call between Washington and Tallahassee, they agreed on a stiff-upper-lip strategy: If they could persuade officials in Palm Beach and Broward counties to keep recounting, they could ask the nation--and the courts--to ignore any move by Harris to declare Bush the winner.

On the ground in South Florida, Gore forces were making slow headway. Broward was counting, Palm Beach ended days of indecision to begin its count and Miami-Dade County was moving toward a decision to count.

At his mansion, Gore worked on a statement he could make in front of television cameras set up on his front lawn.

He was going to ask the country to remain patient with the recounts, even if Harris certified Bush as the winner. He was going to urge respect for the rule of law and the will of the people and, in the inelegant words of one of his aides, "that nobody give the bum's rush to the process."

But five minutes before he was to walk out the front door, aides drew his attention to the television screen.

At first, the import of the court's decision was not clear. Carter Eskew, one of Gore's top campaign strategists, clicked from channel to channel, hoping for more details. Gore got on the telephone with Christopher and other members of his legal team in Tallahassee to hear their interpretation.

When Gore finally went outside to talk before the cameras, his statement had a new tone--but, in the end, most of the same words as his initial draft.

"Neither Gov. Bush, nor the Florida secretary of state nor I will be the arbiter of this election," he said. "This election is a matter that must be decided by the will of the people as expressed under the rule of law."

Throughout the day, one aide said, his demeanor never changed.

In Austin, there was disbelief and official silence. Aides had begun planning events for the weekend--a low-key statement today welcoming certification of the vote, followed by a possible news conference Sunday and, one aide said, a more visible transition process. But all that went on hold.

In Tampa, Fla., at a Republican governors' conference, Pennsylvania Gov. Thomas J. Ridge was less reserved.

"I can't stand it!" he barked at a television set that showed Gore's statement, according to Associated Press.

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