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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Democratic Lawmakers Still Staunchly in Gore's Corner

Politics: Their defenses are up in wake of strident GOP rhetoric and Bush's Supreme Court move. But a shift in public opinion could change things.

November 27, 2000|JANET HOOK and RICHARD SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Al Gore's decision to press his fight for the presidency in the courts is drawing surprising support from fellow Democrats in Congress--many of whom seemed wary of such a strategy not long ago.

And Gore may have his Republican foes to thank for that.

Many Democrats say they have become increasingly willing to stick with the vice president because of George W. Bush's decision to take the disputed Florida vote to the U.S. Supreme Court. And they say their resolve has been further stiffened by the escalating partisan rhetoric of Republican leaders such as House Majority Whip Tom DeLay and Majority Leader Dick Armey, both of Texas.

"If the case weren't going to the Supreme Court, there would be lots of Democrats calling on Gore to throw in the towel," said Geoff Garin, a pollster who works with many House and Senate Democrats. "And if Dick Armey and Tom DeLay would just shut up, some Democrats wouldn't feel as obliged to come to Gore's defense."

But in the wake of Sunday's certification of Texas Gov. Bush as the winner in Florida, it was not clear just how durable Democratic support for Gore's increasingly messy legal strategy will prove to be if public opinion turns against him.

"Thus far, American public opinion has been amazingly understanding and patient," noted former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.). "That could begin to change."

Acknowledged one senior Democratic strategist: "If the public goes south dramatically on Gore, you'll see prominent Democrats do the same."

Gore Has Had Harder Time Unifying Troops

Gore has worked hard to keep Democrats on board with his political and legal strategy. For a variety of personal and political reasons, he has had to work harder to maintain party unity than has Bush--and not just because the vice president has been trailing.

The contrast continues a central campaign dynamic: Congressional Republicans have been more united behind Bush's candidacy--and more determined to defeat Gore--than Democrats have been in pursuit of victory.

"Republicans have been out of power for eight years, and they are hungry to get back in," said Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas).

Many congressional Democrats have complained privately about their disappointment in the way Gore ran his presidential campaign--and their frustration that he did not do more to help them win control of the House. And their political interests may ultimately diverge: If Gore loses, history indicates that Democrats are more likely to win control of the House and Senate in 2002, because the party that holds the White House usually loses seats in Congress in off-year elections.

"We're obviously more worried about our own skins in '02 than Republicans are," said a senior Democratic congressional aide.

But despite their many potential misgivings, Democrats for now are giving Gore all the public support he needs to continue his legal strategy.

"I've talked with most of my colleagues over the last several days, and there isn't any interest in conceding anything at this point," Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "We're in this for whatever length of time it takes to ensure that we get the job done right."

Said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.): "I am 100% supportive. If there is no fairness, there can be no finality." Even Democrats who had been clamoring for Gore to concede defeat if he lost the certified Florida vote now are backing down and counseling patience.

The difference, they say, is the Bush campaign's decision to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court the question of whether to uphold the Florida Supreme Court's ruling that manual recounts had to be included in the state's vote total. With the high court set to hear arguments on that case Friday, Democrats feel the case remains largely open, at least until then.

"I would have liked . . . for the Supreme Court of Florida to be the last word," said Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.), who just a few days ago was calling for a quick conclusion. "But Gov. Bush has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. So, appropriately enough, that will now be the final word, hopefully."

Republicans, for their part, insisted that with Bush certified the winner, Gore should concede.

"The Democrats keep trying to hijack the results, but Gov. Bush is still the winner," said Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. (R-Okla.). "I hope Al Gore will have the integrity and decency to put the country ahead of his election temper tantrums and lose graciously."

Said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi: "I call upon the vice president to end his campaign and concede this election with the honor and dignity the American people expect."

Added DeLay: "Continued litigation by Mr. Gore can only be viewed as an abuse of the legal system and an attempt to defy our constitutional system of government."

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