The vice president's message: We won

A growing confidence -- or at least a confident pose -- comes out of the Gore camp as the vote margin in Florida narrows.

By Alicia Montgomery

Published November 9, 2000 6:19PM (EST)

It's ironic enough that, more than 36 hours after the last polls closed, Al Gore still has a campaign spokesman. But he does, and Thursday afternoon, Chris Lehane spouted the latest Al Gore line on the Florida recount: There should be no "rush to judgment." That's the phrase Lehane used at least a half-dozen times in his remarks.

Gore operatives have also been careful to give the vice president a few degrees of separation from the proceedings currently underway on his behalf. At times in Lehane's remarks, it sounded like the campaign and Gore existed in parallel universes. When asked whether he or other Gore surrogates were speaking for or taking direction from the vice president, he said, "These are people who are acting as agents of the campaign, representing the campaign, and the campaign's feeling that this ... needs to be reexamined. The campaign won the popular vote."

"I'm reflecting the thoughts of the campaign," he said. "And the thoughts of the campaign based on the information before us right now is that Al Gore won the popular vote across this country, and, based on what we have seen, he had the popular vote in Florida." It was unclear whether, in saying this, Lehane was referring to the recount, or a controversial 19,000 ballots that were thrown out in Palm Beach.

Though Lehane said that the vice president was handling the situation as steadily as "an absolute rock," he predicted that Gore would be handling it outside of the public eye for the time being. The vice president is currently performing his administration duties from the top floors of the Loews, and is also enjoying family time with his wife, his four children, a couple of in-laws and grandson Wyatt.

Strong and silent, Lehane said, is the appropriate way to behave. According to Lehane, Bush's availability to the press and his statements about a White House transition team were proof that he was trying to "rush the judgment of the American people." He also defended Gore's lack of transition work by taking a backhanded stab at Bush's credentials. "The vice president is a little bit of a different entity here, he's someone who has been in office for eight years. He's capable of hitting the ground from Day 1 if need be, so we don't necessarily need the same transition process as other folks might."

Whoever the new president is, Gore -- or his campaign -- will give them only as much transition time as the legal process allows. "There's no way we're going to know where this thing is, even by the end of today," Lehane said. "The defining principle in all of this is that the will of the people be respected and reflected in these election results."

And the will of the people apparently is that Gore take office, in his own good time. Earlier on Thursday Lehane said, "It has become increasingly clear that Gore not only won the popular vote across this country but the popular vote in Florida as well." That was a switch from Wednesday's theme du jour about how Gore had won the popular vote across the nation, but would play nice should George W. Bush eventually win Florida. Now the message is that Gore won it all -- though it may take a while to prove it. The tactic is clear: Stave off Bush's attempts to claim the presidency until the Florida vote is decided. To do otherwise would be, as Gore campaign chairman William Daley said, "an injustice unparalleled in our history." Thursday morning Lehane was careful to say that no one should expect the process to be finished early Thursday evening, the time Florida officials say they will be done reviewing ballots. "It's extremely and abundantly clear that there were over 19,000 votes that were discounted, that were disproportionately Al Gore votes," Lehane said. "That's a serious issue there." Lehane wouldn't explicitly say that Gore's forces plan to sue.

Part of the dispute concerns the design of the ballot in Florida's Palm Beach County, where the punch hole for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan was above Al Gore's punch hole, though Buchanan's name was actually on the other side of the ballot. Though Ralph Nader remains unrepentant about charges that he stole votes from Gore, Buchanan has signaled that he doesn't want to be labeled a thief. "My guess is, I probably got some votes down there that really did not belong to me, and I do not feel well about that," Buchanan told NBC's "Today" show.

Gore certainly wants to get all the votes that belong to him, and is willing to wait as long as it takes to get them. The vice president reportedly plans to head back to Washington in time for his son's football banquet Friday.

But Lehane warned everyone not to get too cozy. "One of the lessons that all of us have derived over the last several days is that not only every 24 hours, but every 24 minutes, the landscape seems to change," he said.

Alicia Montgomery

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

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