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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Gore Treads Softly in Postelection Twilight Zone

Strategy: Vice president is keeping a low profile but presses his case for contesting vote. Bush, meanwhile, is wading into transition issues.

November 29, 2000|JAMES GERSTENZANG and EDWIN CHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Vice President Al Gore wrestled Tuesday with the delicate dilemma posed by the nation's postelection limbo: how to show he is prepared to run the country without appearing rash.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush, meanwhile, charged into the mechanics and imagery of a full-fledged presidential transition. His designated chief of staff announced that Bush would begin interviewing potential officials for his administration at his ranch near Waco, Texas, perhaps later this week.

And Bush's staff plans to move its transition operation from Austin, Texas, to Washington, possibly by this weekend. Aides began looking for office space to house the team and sought individual donations of up to $5,000 to pay for it.

The vice president, conducting a less visible operation, had lunch at his Washington home with Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, a likely candidate to remain in a Gore administration.

After lunch, he stepped outside, positioned himself so the National Cathedral loomed behind him and deflected suggestions that he had offered Summers a job.

"I don't think it's right for me to be offering people jobs." But, he added, "Gov. Bush and I . . . should both proceed with transition planning and activities.

"I personally do not feel it is appropriate to announce the names of Cabinet members or to formally offer positions," he said--seeming to anticipate that Bush is nearing just such a juncture.

With Gore's lawyers in Tallahassee, Fla., seeking to overturn the state's certification of Bush as the winner of its decisive 25 electoral votes, the Gore campaign has a strategic reason to keep its efforts behind closed doors.

"We want to stay focused on the Florida situation," said Mark D. Fabiani, Gore's deputy campaign manager. "Talking about a transition and Cabinet members might be interesting in Washington, but to the public? They want to see the Florida situation resolved."

Besides, given the challenge Gore faces in Florida, "people would laugh and say, 'There you go again, Al,' " said Kenneth M. Duberstein, a Republican who was President Reagan's last White House chief of staff.

Still, said Duberstein, "it would be responsible for him to do it quietly, [checking out] candidates, making a list and checking it twice."

One Gore aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, predicted that in coming days Gore will conduct himself much as he did Tuesday: looking for an opportunity to present his case in public but otherwise staying out of view.

A former Democratic Party official, who spoke on condition that his name not be used because his current job precludes overt political activity, said that Gore can move to a more public transition operation only "if he starts picking up momentum."

Suggesting a course under which Gore could use the guise of the transition to gain centrist support for his challenge, he added: "If he gets a few legal victories, he can start looking at potential Republican appointees--interesting ones--to get people talking about the upside of a Gore presidency. There is value in his being a little more public, talking about the transition, because it gives the sense of momentum."

For Bush, the higher-decibel transition talk served another purpose: to imbue his cause with a sense of inevitability.

Bush has been consulting mostly Republican members of Congress and his fellow governors around the country, seeking recommendations for staffing an administration, top aides said.

By telephone, he congratulated Mexico's president-elect, Vicente Fox, who is to be inaugurated Friday, said Karen Hughes, Bush's communications director. Later, Bush and his wife, Laura, left Austin for their ranch. Running mate Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynne, plan to join them there this weekend, aides said.

Andrew H. Card Jr., Bush's designated White House chief of staff, met with Bush at the Texas Capitol. Later, he told reporters that Democrats would be considered for senior posts in a Bush administration.

Card said that Bush has made no final decisions about senior White House or Cabinet positions. But, he said, "we're on track."

Card said that Bush had spoken with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.).

"We want to work closely with the U.S. Congress and the Senate, particularly in making sure they have names they can consider," Card said of the Senate's task of confirming nominees for Cabinet and sub-Cabinet slots.

Ari Fleischer, the newly designated Bush spokesman on transition matters, said during an afternoon briefing that Bush feels some urgency in naming his Cabinet choices and a senior White House staff.

"For a transition, typically you have about 75 days. Now we're down to about 50 days," Fleischer said.

Cheney, who is heading the transition operation, said that no decision had been made on when to announce Cabinet choices. But, he said on NBC's "Today" show, "we could move fairly rapidly in a couple of areas."

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