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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Anxious Christopher Sounds Conciliatory Notes

November 30, 2000|JIM NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher on Wednesday lamented the rising tempers in the nation's bitterly contested presidential campaign, warning that partisans on both sides have created such rancor that it will be difficult for the next president to govern.

"It would be very useful if Democrats would step back and realize that about half the country voted for [Texas] Gov. [George W.] Bush," said Christopher, the leader of Vice President Al Gore's legal team, in an afternoon interview with The Times. "And the other side, the Republicans and supporters of Gov. Bush, would also do well to remember that somewhat more than half the country voted for Vice President Gore."

The extraordinarily close race "ought to cause mutual respect," said Christopher, who in recent days has expressed his regard for some members of the other camp--including former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, Bush's running mate. Christopher said he was trying in his public remarks to encourage respect for the other side, and was continuing to "hope for reciprocity" from his Republican counterparts.

Christopher's remarks reflect the anxieties of many leading national figures as they balance the desire to see their candidate triumph against the nation's well-being--and the next president's ability to govern. Those anxieties are particularly striking, coming from someone very close to Gore: In 1992, Christopher helped Bill Clinton pick Gore as his running mate, and this year he performed the same role for Gore, helping him to select Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.).

Hours after watching the returns come in on election night, Christopher was in Los Angeles--getting ready for bed--when the phone rang, and Gore campaign chairman Bill Daley dispatched him to Florida. Tired and eager to spend a night at home, Christopher, who is 75, returned late last week in time for Thanksgiving.

Since then he has continued to participate in the Gore team's regular strategy sessions, which link advisors in Los Angeles to those in Florida, Washington and elsewhere.

Christopher expects to fly to Washington today to join the Gore legal team as it prepares for its appearance before the U.S. Supreme Court. The court is scheduled on Friday to hear arguments in an appeal brought by the Bush campaign and aimed at overturning the Florida Supreme Court's decision to allow hand recounts in that state to proceed.

Christopher, a lion of Los Angeles' legal community and a member of every Democratic administration since John F. Kennedy's, said he expects to attend the arguments, although not to participate himself. Harvard professor Laurence H. Tribe will be the Democrats' lead lawyer before the court. Afterward, Christopher will return to Los Angeles to attend the memorial service of a family friend.

Warning that the next president--either Gore or Bush--will encounter a divided Congress as well as a bitterly polarized group of party activists, Christopher added that he hopes "some spirit of patriotism rather than partisanship will prevail."

"The country," he noted, "cannot be put on hold for four years."

Despite his call for tempers to cool, Christopher defended the legal and political choices by the Gore team in the days and weeks since election day.

At each juncture, Christopher said, the Gore team has pressed for the counting of more ballots, an approach that he argued has both legal merit and common-sense appeal. One result, Christopher said, is that the Gore team is choosing not to seek the rejection of absentee ballots in Seminole County, where questions have been raised about the role of a Republican official in filing ballot requests.

The only logical remedy for that problem, he and others have said, is to dispose of those ballots altogether--a move that would wipe out Bush's lead in the state but also would disenfranchise thousands of voters and would therefore run counter to the Gore team's overriding strategy.

Similarly, Christopher said concerns about possible remedies persuaded the Gore camp early on to shift from its focus on double-punched, so-called "butterfly ballots," in Palm Beach County to disputed ballots in areas where there appeared to be irregularities.

The Palm Beach County ballot, which Democrats have contended confused some Gore voters into mistakenly casting votes for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan, emerged on the day after the election as one of the most contentious issues in the calls for a recount. Christopher said Wednesday that he continues to believe that ballot was illegal, but he and other legal and political advisors soon concluded that there was little they could do about it.

The only remedy, Christopher said, was to order a revote. And that, he added, "lacked practicality."

One source of frustration for Christopher and the rest of the legal team has been the inability to win a recount of the ballots from Miami-Dade County, Florida's biggest.

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