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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Democrats in Congress Anxiously Gauge Public Sentiment

Lawmakers: As leaders rally behind Gore's decision to contest vote, a few dissenting voices within the party emerge. Messages pour into their offices.

November 28, 2000|JANET HOOK and FAYE FIORE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — While Democratic leaders continued Monday to rally behind Al Gore, many rank-and-file party members in Congress were anxiously monitoring polls, constituent phone calls and e-mails for signs that the public may be growing weary of the vice president's marathon fight for the White House.

A Washington Post/ABC poll taken immediately after Florida officials certified Texas Gov. George W. Bush as the state's winner Sunday night found that 60% believed it was time for Vice President Gore to concede defeat.

A few Democratic lawmakers publicly dared to agree with that sentiment Monday. A handful reported anti-Gore demonstrations outside their district offices, and others said they'd heard from party regulars who were ready to wave the white flag.

"We have lost the war. Let's move on. The party is bigger than Al Gore," lamented one Democrat in an e-mail Monday to a California House member. The Democratic lawmaker released the correspondence under a pledge of anonymity.

For its part, the Gore campaign--assisted by party leaders--moved aggressively to shape public opinion, rather than react to it. Even before Gore's nationally televised speech Monday, Capitol Hill's top two Democratic leaders--Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri--were in Tallahassee, Fla., to support the vice president's continuing challenge of the Florida results.

"We call on everyone to let the process go forward, as allowed by the law, so that we can find out who got the most votes in Florida and who should be our next president," Gephardt said at a news conference.

Senior campaign officials, in a telephone conference call with House Democrats on Monday, urged them to speak out for the Gore effort--and a remarkable number are answering the call.

Still, a few dissenting voices within the party began to be heard.

"I don't see any mechanism that's going to perform a miracle and hand over the presidency to Al Gore," said Rep. Julia Carson (D-Ind.). "The Republicans stole it fair and square."

Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) said public patience with the legal process would wear thin unless Gore wins some kind of court victory soon that diminishes the legitimacy of Bush's certification as the winner in Florida.

"The certification . . . obviously changes the dynamic," Torricelli said. "Certification in Florida was not the end. But without some intervening legal decision, it's the beginning of the end."

Robert B. Reich, a former Labor secretary in the Clinton administration, said he thought it was time for Gore to throw in the towel. "I have great doubts about whether it is wise for the country . . . for the vice president to continue to pursue and to contest the results in Florida," Reich said Monday on "Good Morning America."

Reich was among the few prominent Democrats who actively supported former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey over Gore in the Democratic presidential primary campaign.

Some House Democrats reported that anti-Gore demonstrations were held outside their district offices Monday, but they viewed them as Republican-orchestrated events rather than spontaneous expressions of constituents' views.

"Partisan demonstrations do not decide elections in America--the law does," Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.) said in response to one such protest. "Neither Mr. Bush nor Mr. Gore will concede until their rights under the law have been pursued."

Another anti-Gore crowd formed near the Fargo, N.D., office of Democratic Rep. Earl Pomeroy, a Gore backer in a state that went heavily for Bush.

"I think people want to see this thing wrapped up," said Michael Smart, an aide to Pomeroy. "We're getting calls to that effect."'

Other members of Congress were deluged with thousands of e-mail messages and phone calls sent at all hours of the morning and night--often with messages as divided as the presidential election itself.

The California Democrat, who declined to be identified, shared some of the 3,000 e-mails the office received from Wednesday to Sunday. More than 90% of it came from outside the district, apparently orchestrated by Bush supporters. More telling to the lawmaker were signs that loyalties were starting to drift among some Democrats.

"I wish Gore would do the dignified thing and graciously step aside, and come back in 2004 if that is his wish," one constituent wrote.

Other constituents stuck by the vice president's quest to see every vote counted, some searching for ways to help him do it: "How can we become more directly involved in supporting efforts to assure that the uncounted votes in [Miami-Dade] County are in fact counted?"

Six minutes before Bush was declared the winner in Florida, another California family asked that this message be passed along to Gore: "We are very proud of the way you and Mr. [Joseph I.] Lieberman are dealing with this difficult situation. We are urging you to continue to strive for all the votes in Florida to be counted! A rush to judgment is not in our country's best interest!"

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