Bush camp claims victory

But his 327-vote lead in the recount has not put a stop to challenges and questions about the Florida vote.

By Joan Walsh

Published November 9, 2000 8:18PM (EST)

With all 67 Florida counties unofficially reporting the results of the presidential election recount, Gov. George W. Bush led Vice President Al Gore by 327 votes Friday.

At a brief meeting with press at the Texas Governor's Mansion Friday afternoon, Bush -- who sported a mysterious Band-Aid on his right cheek and cracked jokes with New York Times reporter Frank Bruni -- told reporters, "We have a Constitution, and I live by that Constitution." And though some voters will be disappointed by the outcome and "there are still votes to be counted," Bush said he would move ahead in "preparing for a possible administration." In an apparent response to his loss of the popular vote, Bush said he would seek to "unite the country" if installed as its next president.

The Bush campaign had moved quickly to claim victory Friday morning. "We have had an election that showed Governor Bush won the state of Florida. We have now had a recount that showed Governor Bush won the state of Florida. And I hope all parties involved would think about the good of the country," Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes told reporters.

At a press conference in Florida convened just after noon EST, former Secretary of State James Baker, dispatched by Bush to monitor the state's recount, warned the Democrats not to open a can of worms by asking for additional recounts of the Florida vote. Baker hinted that if the Gore campaign takes legal action, the Bush campaign could do so elsewhere. He also implored the vice president to concede the race rather than engage in "endless legal wrangling."

"For the good of the country and for the sake of our standing in the world, the campaigning should end and the business of an orderly transition should begin," Baker told reporters.

But the Gore camp was not conceding. "Contrary to claims being made this morning by the Bush campaign, this election is not over," countered Gore campaign chairman William Daley. "Again, we want the true and accurate will of the people to prevail, and that means letting the legal system run its course."

And if his election is confirmed, Bush still faces a public baffled by the arcane process of the electoral college. A just-released NBC News national poll reports that 56 percent of Americans say the winner of the popular vote should become the next president, while only 39 percent support the electoral college winner. But despite their criticism of the outcome, 72 percent of respondents said that if the winner of the electoral college vote serves the next president, it would not affect his ability to lead the country.

On Thursday, the Gore campaign demanded a hand count of the votes in Palm Beach County and three other Florida counties, claiming ballot irregularities and other problems reduced Gore's vote by enough to cost him victory in that pivotal state. The Bush campaign countered by threatening recounts in Iowa and Wisconsin, where Gore won razor-thin victories. A recount is already underway in New Mexico, which Gore narrowly won.

"Technicalities should not determine the president of the United States," said Daley, who added he believes Gore won the popular vote in Florida. Daley raised the possibility that legal challenges to the Palm Beach County vote and other concerns could lead to a new election.

"I think another election [is something] that will be looked at by the courts further down the road," Daley said.

More than 19,000 ballots were invalidated in Palm Beach County because voters appeared to vote for two candidates. In that same county, a liberal stronghold, Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan received 3,407 votes, more than three times his total in any other Florida county. After Daley's demand, Palm Beach County officials voluntarily agreed to conduct a hand count of their disputed ballot.

The Bush camp fired back aggressively, claiming that Palm Beach County is a Buchanan stronghold, and that the number of votes cast for Buchanan is reasonable.

"New information has come to our attention that puts in perspective the results of the vote in Palm Beach County," charged the statement issued by Bush campaign spokesman Ari Fleischer. "Palm Beach County is a Pat Buchanan stronghold and that's why Pat Buchanan received 3,407 votes there.

"According to the Florida Department of State, 16,695 voters in Palm Beach County are registered to the Independent Party, the Reform Party or the American Reform Party, an increase of 110 percent since the 1996 presidential election," the statement continued. Bush officials also pointed out that more than 14,000 Palm Beach County ballots were disqualified in 1996.

"The Democrats who are politicizing and distorting these routine and predictable events risk doing our democracy a disservice," the statement said.

But counting the American Reform Party and the Independent Party together with Buchanan's Reform Party as evidence of Buchanan's appeal may be misleading. The Independent Party endorsed Buchanan's Reform Party rival, John Hagelin. And the American Reform Party split with Reform, and this year endorsed Ralph Nader for president.

Likewise, the GOP's basis for calling Palm Beach County a "Pat Buchanan stronghold" was unclear. Buchanan wasn't on the ballot in November 1996, when President Clinton overwhelmingly carried the county. Reform Party candidate Ross Perot received 30,739 votes for president, 7.75 percent of the vote. But that's lower than the 9.1 percent of the vote Perot received statewide. Buchanan did receive more than 7,000 votes in the Republican primary in Palm Beach County that year, but he was a far more viable candidate then, having won the New Hampshire primary.

Earlier on Thursday, former Secretary of State James Baker, tapped by Bush to monitor the Florida recount, said he had seen neither allegations of fraud nor evidence of it. He said the controversial Palm Beach County ballots had been reviewed before the election by both campaigns. "And guess what: There were no complaints until after the election," Baker said.

Later in the day Baker said, "The presidential election is ... on hold."

Three Palm Beach County voters sued Wednesday to demand a new vote, claiming a badly designed ballot caused them to cast votes for Buchanan instead of Gore. A federal judge had scheduled a hearing Thursday afternoon on the suit, but it was withdrawn just as the hearing was about to begin.

Attorney Lawrence Navarro said his client believed "it would be better for the country and for the Democratic Party if he withdrew ... Al Gore is going to step up and fight this battle," Navarro said. He denied that there had been any pressure from the Democratic Party to do so, but said he had received calls from lots of people.

Daley said the Democrats would seek a hand recount of the ballots cast Tuesday in Palm Beach, Dade, Broward and Volusia counties, which cast a combined 1.78 million votes. Dade County includes Miami; Broward is home to Fort Lauderdale; Daytona Beach is in Volusia.

In Volusia, Socialist Workers Party candidate James Harris got 9,888 votes on the first count, but his tally dwindled to 8 on the recount. And according to CNN, other third-party candidates got an additional 9,000 votes in the county in the first count. Democratic Party officials say a computer error may have caused the outsized vote for minor candidates. On Election Night, Democrats complained that Gore's vote total dipped a mysterious 10,000 votes in the middle of the vote counting. Republicans also charged fraud in Volusia, and for a time yellow police tape closed the county's elections office.

There were complaints elsewhere in Florida. In Tampa, voters complained that polls closed while they were in line, while voters in Osceola County said they too were confused by their ballots. In Tallahassee, the Florida Highway Patrol set up checkpoints near a polling area in a heavily black neighborhood, where troopers checked driver's licenses and some residents claimed intimidation.

In heavily Democratic Palm Beach County, 19,120 ballots were thrown out before they were counted because voters accidentally marked them for more than one presidential candidate.

In a press conference, Jesse Jackson and Florida Rep. Robert Wexler claimed the ballots in Palm Beach County were "illegal." Jackson said that state law required that the names of Gore and vice presidential nominee Joseph Lieberman appear second on the ballot. But the ballot was designed with the hole to be punched for Gore on the third line, while the hole on the second line was actually linked to Pat Buchanan.

Wexler and Jackson also claimed that the ballots did not properly align with the voting machinery used in that county, causing large numbers of voters to inadvertently vote for the wrong candidate.

Ron Turovsky, an election law specialist at Manatt, Phelps and Phillips in Los Angeles, believes there are grounds for a revote in the widespread complaints about voter confusion and the high number of ballots punched for two candidates. "Clearly there's some extrinsic evidence that a large number of people were confused. And if people truly were misled, or the voters' rights to select the person of their choice was impacted by it being too confusing, I think that is a fair reason to let those people vote over again to have their votes count." While some Republicans complain, in response to Democrats' calls for a new Palm Beach vote, that complaints about ballot confusion are not uncommon, Turovsky thinks the Palm Beach situation is unique. "I don't think it's fair to say that these things happen all the time. I've never seen these particular issues before."

Meanwhile, Buchanan told the "Today" show that he believes the Palm Beach controversy probably cost Gore the election, and he regrets receiving votes that weren't meant for him.

"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. I don't want to take any votes that do not belong to me."

Out of nearly 6 million votes cast, the Bush margin before the recount began was 1,784 votes.

State elections officials said the recount should be completed Thursday, but officials must wait until at least Friday, Nov. 17, to certify those results. The 17th is the deadline for the approximately 2,000 ballots cast by Floridians living overseas -- mostly military personnel and their families -- to arrive in the state. The ballots must have been postmarked by Election Day.

Meanwhile, Republican Party officials are exploring the possibility of requesting a voter recount following Al Gore's razor-thin victory in Iowa.

"If we think a recount, in regards to numbers or in regards to aberrations that come to our attention, that a recount would likely affect the outcome, then we would make that recommendation," said Kayne Robinson, chairman of the Republican Party in Iowa.

Bush campaign officials also said they were looking at the possibility of a recount in another closely contested state, Wisconsin.

"We're reviewing that right now," said Bush campaign spokesman Fleischer. To ask for a recount, Bush would have to personally write each of Iowa's 99 county auditors by 5 p.m. Nov. 16 or 17, depending on the county.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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