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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

GOP Army Catches Up in the Surrogacy Ground War

November 23, 2000|RICHARD SIMON and SCOTT GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Montana Gov. Marc Racicot went to Miami. Former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) went to Broward County. Rep. Stephen E. Buyer (R-Ind.) went to Palm Beach County.

The Bush campaign and the Republican National Committee have dispatched a small army of big guns to Florida to press their case against hand recounts of the disputed presidential election.

So many members of Congress have volunteered, said Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Santa Clarita), that the campaign of George W. Bush put out word that it doesn't need any more right now.

"They said, 'We've got so many people down here they can't get them all in front of cameras,' " said McKeon, who decided to stay in California for the Thanksgiving holiday instead.

Reps. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and John Sweeney (R-N.Y.) all went, though. So did Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), former Labor Secretary Lynn Martin and J. Kenneth Blackwell, Ohio's secretary of state.

"We've got people coming in from all over the country, all giving up their time for this," said Alicia Peterson, the Bush campaign aide who coordinates their movements from a cramped, cluttered office in the George Bush Republican Party Headquarters Building in Tallahassee, Fla., which is named after the candidate's father.

Four "bookers" working for Peterson spend their time arranging television appearances for the "surrogates," as the visiting officials are called.

The high-profile surrogates are only the most visible part of a massive operation launched by both political parties to flood Florida with lawyers, observers, field organizers, protesters and media spinners for the last, decisive days of the 2000 presidential campaign.

The Democrats may have gotten the jump on the GOP by putting their field operation in place first, but the Republicans appear to have caught up this week--especially on the public-image side.

Civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson was the most visible Democrat on the ground in the first week of the vote recount but has departed--to the private relief of some Gore aides. His role as a Democratic spokesman on the battlefield has been supplanted by Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) and Sens. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.).

For members of Congress and worker bees alike, the crisis in Florida is a chance to be a part of history--and, in some cases, to impress the next president with your loyalty to the cause.

"The whole thing is reminiscent of a military operation," said a California Republican congressman's aide who offered to serve as a recount observer. He said he got a phone call from a Bush campaign activist one evening and was told to be at the airport at 7 the next morning. His airline ticket was prepaid, his Miami hotel room was reserved, and he was given the name of a retired Army colonel to whom he was to report.

The disbanding staffs of political campaigns and the out-of-session staffs of members of Congress provided an easy recruiting ground.

"We were called by the Bush people to provide names of lawyers who might be willing to go down as observers this weekend," said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.). "The last thing we need in Florida right now are more lawyers."

Rep. John B. Shadegg (R-Ariz.) complained that the Bush campaign was slower getting troops to Florida than the Gore camp. He said he called the Bush campaign the day after the election and recommended some election lawyers in Arizona, but it wasn't until a week later that they were called into action.

"It appears that the Gore camp anticipated a legal fight and pulled the trigger to unleash both lawyers and spokespeople much faster than the Bush people," Shadegg said.

For Thanksgiving, one GOP aide said, the Republican National Committee offered to pay the air fare home for any volunteer who wanted the day off, but few signed up.

Democratic National Committee spokesman Rick Hess said his side did the same.

"A lot of people are going to demonstrate the Democratic Party's family values by going home for the holiday," he said. "But a lot of people will head back to make sure that every vote is counted."

*

Simon reported from Washington and Gold from West Palm Beach. Times Washington Bureau Chief Doyle McManus and Times staff writers Janet Hook and Alan C. Miller in Washington also contributed to this story.

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