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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

'Talk' to Come at Bitter End for Bush or Gore

November 20, 2000|MARIA L. La GANGA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sometime soon, Vice President Al Gore or Texas Gov. George W. Bush will likely sit down for the most difficult conversation of his political life--the pack-it-in dream-ender between close advisor and candidate, another step from hope toward concession.

For candidates and those who dream along with them, a campaign's unsuccessful end is akin to the death of a loved one.

"Any way you cut it," says Gale Kaufman, a Democratic political advisor, "it's almost impossible."

The conversation about ending a run for office is American politics' answer to the snowflake. It is shaped by the peculiarities of office-seeker and race and complicated by the very nature of campaigning, all optimism and functional denial.

Sen. John McCain broached the critical conversation with the bluntness that gave his campaign its name--the Straight Talk Express. He sat his closest advisors down the day after Super Tuesday 2000 and leveled with them in the kitchen of his Sedona, Ariz., vacation home.

San Diego Mayor Susan Golding, who launched an unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate in 1998, was told via cell phone by one advisor that it would be a good idea to drop out of the costly campaign and not exercise her fallback plan either--a cheaper run that year for lieutenant governor.

Sometimes the conversation is aborted early on, if the candidate believes in success to the bitter end and rebuffs even the standard opener of "Let's talk about the victory speech and the concession speech."

As complicated as such conversations always are, the one that Bush or Gore faces will be even more wrenching. The stakes have never been higher, the emotions stronger, the process murkier, the timing more crucial.

Thirteen days after the Nov. 7 election, the presidency rests on the tight race in Florida, where the ballot recounts continue. Every hour, it seems, brings a new judicial ruling, alternately raising and dashing the candidates' hopes. Never have two men seemed closer to inhabiting the nation's single highest office--or not.

"If there is a conversation that one of these candidates ends up having, it dwarfs every other because of the stakes involved," says Paul Maslin, a Democratic political consultant. "This is such an uncertain situation that anyone would be haunted by being wrong."

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Wednesday, March 8, Sedona. McCain sat at the kitchen table, his wife, Cindy, at his side, his four closest advisors huddled around him.

Super Tuesday was yesterday's nightmare. With campaign funds dipping perilously, the Republican nomination for president was an increasingly distant dream. The exhausted group, which arrived from California in the afternoon, had agreed to get some much-needed rest and talk the next morning about what options remained.

Then McCain, always impatient, called a meeting. "I believe we've run our course," he said. "Tell me, any one of you, if you disagree with that."

No one did. So the former fighter pilot took aim at the next target, switching the conversation to the business at hand: how to suspend the campaign and begin discussions with Bush, who would go on to win the nomination and possibly the presidency.

Chief strategist John Weaver, who leaned against McCain's kitchen wall as the campaign ended before his eyes, described the conversation as "tearful."

"There was resignation in the air," Weaver said. "Yet we were very proud of him and the campaign we conducted. You're heartsick. At the same time you have a certain responsibility to wrap it up."

McCain declined to comment on the pivotal conversation that led to him abandoning the race; not surprisingly, many advisors and candidates also were reluctant to discuss such a sensitive subject.

Everyone assembled in McCain's kitchen that day had known all along that they were taking on the establishment, Weaver said. Everyone knew the risks. They knew they had to beat the well-heeled Bush in the first four primaries to win the nomination. They knew they had only won three.

While they harbored no illusions, they functioned under the biggest illusion of all, the one that powers every political campaign through months of struggle and uncertainty. Dr. Harvey L. Rich, a Washington psychoanalyst, describes it as a "necessary denial."

"For the most part, politicians and people who work in the political world don't think about loss," Rich says. "It would make their daily life feel a little too fragile. And on a pragmatic level, it's a bit of a waste of time."

Weaver agrees. But he also notes that such unwavering optimism can be a serious impediment to the crucial conversation that ends a campaign. If timed right, he says, that conversation is "not just the right thing at the moment, but the right thing to preserve options for the future."

Still, "it's against every fiber in your body to stop," he says. "People who do this are warriors, trained to fight, to ignore the odds. . . . You have to survive minefields, explosions and near-death experiences to get to that point where you're still in the race."

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