Gore headquarters: From light to leaden

Alicia Montgomery reports from the vice president's campaign as the Democrats wait out the final votes.

By Alicia Montgomery

Published November 8, 2000 4:18AM (EST)

10:50 p.m. CST: "I'm feeling good," the young woman said unconvincingly, barely moving her eyes from the television screen. She didn't want to be identified as part of Al Gore's campaign; what she was saying wasn't official, remember? But she did have more than a hanger-on's view of the campaign. "We should have won Florida," she said. "We had our best people there."

She, and a few other tense and tired folks, were sitting in a room on the mezzanine of the Loews Vanderbilt Plaza Hotel -- Camp Gore -- where the wine was open but the champagne remained uncorked. Most people in the room didn't want to speak, not even to each other, as they watched numbers roll in from the dwindling list of undecided states.

But John Tyson did have something to say. "I'm exhausted, but confident," said the Maryland man, acknowledging that the outcome was out of everyone's hands. "You just have to count on the Lord in these things."

Steve Robinson preferred to trust the math instead. "He needs 56 percent of the remaining votes in Florida to win it," Robinson told me. He expected it to be close, but "a little suspense is a lot easier."

Jesse Walker, a 20-year-old, didn't get to cast his vote for Gore, even though he supported him, eventually. "At first, I agreed with people who were against Gore because of the Occidental Petroleum thing," Walker said, referring to the interest Gore's family holds in the oil company's stock. "But I got a chance to go to the Democratic Convention, and I really liked what I heard."

Unfortunately, by the time Walker got around to registering, the deadline had passed. It would have been the first ballot he ever cast. When asked how he felt about missing that opportunity now, he just shook his head. "Don't rub it in," Walker said.

One older Tennessee gentleman who didn't want to give his name said he could describe how he was feeling in one word: "Sleepy." He declined to elaborate. "Oh, please," he said kindly. "I just can't deal with this right now."

10:10 p.m. CST: A sullen pair of young Republicans walked slowly with bent heads and long faces from the Wild Horse Saloon. There, the Tennessee state GOP was throwing a party for Texas Gov. George W. Bush's win in Gore's backyard, but Bush had lost Michigan, Pennsylvania and, they believed, Florida.

The couple had walked 10 steps too far to hear the piercing squeal after CNN took Florida out of Gore's column and put it back into the "undecided" category. The "new" country-western bar echoed with the hollers of hundreds as networks called Idaho, Utah and New Hampshire for Bush, and nearly left their feet when he was called the victor in Missouri. That last state meant a lot to Leslie Rohrer, whose family went there to campaign on Bush's behalf. She was glad to be able to teach Missourians the lesson she believed native Tennesseans knew about Gore: "The more you get to know him, the more you don't like him."

Back at Camp Gore, the air went from feather-light to leaden within the space of 10 minutes. When the first wave of battleground states fell for their candidate, there was a cautious happiness among those gathered. Reporters and Gore partygoers gathered around a lobby television set, watching Michigan and Illinois and Florida going to their man.

Pennsylvania was the clincher, and when it was called for Gore and CNN started to speculate about a Gore presidency, supporters skipped through the hotel's atrium, hugging one another, chirping congratulations into their cellphones. But then Florida flipped back, and the vice president's fans retreated to the mezzanine, where they grimly watched the screen with crossed arms and pinched lips. Crowds thinned from around the set in the lobby, and civilian cellphones were slowly slipped back into bags.

Alicia Montgomery

Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

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