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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Bush Builds Lead on Overseas Vote

Republicans Launch Fierce Attack on Florida Hand Counting

Both Sides See High Road as Long Lost

November 19, 2000|JANET HOOK and AARON ZITNER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — As the frenzied battle surrounding the presidential election slowed Saturday, politicians and other public figures around the country took a deep breath and surveyed the scene--and many did not much like what they saw.

The extraordinary postelection drama that began with two dignified former secretaries of State serving as spokesmen for rival candidates has descended into a partisan and legal brawl uglier than anyone dared imagine. In the process, many independent observers fear, Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore have inflicted considerable damage on themselves--as well as on their opponents.

"There is a real sense of despair, almost, about what is going to be happening over the next couple of years," said former Rep. Bill Clinger (R-Pa.), who is part of a group that for months has been working on recommendations about how either a Bush or Gore administration could best manage the transition. "How do we put Humpty Dumpty back together again? How do we continue to govern with the really poisonous atmosphere that exists?"

The postelection day skirmishing has given the most vivid glimpse yet of how Bush and Gore perform under pressure. And even to some of the candidates' allies, the picture is not particularly pleasing.

"What we're going through right now is their first test of their ability to lead this country," said Leon E. Panetta, a former Democratic House member from Carmel Valley and a former White House chief of staff under President Clinton. "And neither has gotten very high grades."

Some public officials remain hopeful that the fallout from the controversy will be short-lived. "I think this is not healthy, but I think we'll get over it," said Republican Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan. "Whoever is president will be judged on his performance [in office], not on the last few weeks."

In the days since the Nov. 7 election, the legal skirmishing in Florida seems only to have intensified. The next key step is a hearing Monday before the Florida Supreme Court about whether ongoing manual recounts will be included in the final total that determines who won the state--and with it the White House.

"Once again, we are all in limbo," said Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.). "I believe that all of us must . . . calm down and be patient. But we also must hope that the cycle of filing lawsuits and appeals ends--and ends soon."

Many politicians say that Bush and Gore both have been employing tactics that could harm their standing--and the public's confidence in the political system. The partisan vitriol has escalated to the point that each side essentially is accusing the other of trying to steal the election.

Critics lambaste both candidates, saying Bush has seemed intransigent and defensive in fighting hand recounts, while Gore's aggressive legal strategy looks like a shameless search for votes.

"I think if Bush has to win this by not counting votes, then his will be a pretty marginal presidency," said Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat. "And if Gore decides he has to litigate this forever, his would be a marginal presidency."

Some critics say the whole mess could have been avoided by the two candidates--or by their top lieutenants, former secretaries of State Warren Christopher and James A. Baker III--coming together and agreeing on a process for settling the dispute.

"Instead of sending Christopher and Baker into legal battle, they should have sent them into a room [to reach a compromise]," Panetta said. "That's the kind of challenge they are going to face every day in the presidency."

Others say that it's unreasonable to expect that the two candidates would not play hardball--given the high stakes and the closeness of the outcome.

"I don't think this is a situation that lends itself to people looking very heroic," said Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.). "Both candidates have spent a good part of their lives striving for this office. They are within millimeters of getting there, and they are both being urged by supporters to do whatever is necessary to get that last millimeter."

"Hey, this isn't beanbag," said Michael S. Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee. "My advice to [Gore] would be to continue to press this unless and until the Florida Supreme Court says that it's done."

A key to the future will be how the two candidates handle the denouement. At some point, they will have to switch from campaign mode to statesmanship, said Madeleine Kunin, the former governor of Vermont. "A lot of it will depend on how Bush and Gore accept whatever the court decides. This has been going on like a political campaign, which is understandable under the circumstances. But I think at some point, the tone has to shift."

That point should occur when one candidate finally can claim victory, said Jerald F. Ter Horst, former press secretary to President Ford.

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