Desperation all around

This much is official: The Bush and Gore campaigns are both frantically grasping at straws.

By Jake Tapper

Published November 10, 2000 7:00PM (EST)

It ain't over till it's over. Or -- if you're Gov. George W. Bush -- till you really, really want it to be over. Right now!

But if you're Vice President Al Gore, it's not over till every last Florida vote has been counted -- and even then it might not be over.

On Friday both camps came out swinging.

At noon EST, former Secretary of State James Baker walks into the Florida Senate hearing room that the press has commandeered. But far from being the voice of caution and respect for the process that is his billing, Baker is part of Gov. Bush's latest urgent, impatient cause: to call this election as his own even before all of the ballots are in.

As questionable and desperate as the complaints about unfair voting practices and the threats of lawsuits from the campaign of Vice President Al Gore may seem, the Bush campaign meets the Gore camp's desperation and raises it.

The Bush folks want this to be over, even if the final recount is not over. Even though it would be premature. Even though Florida's secretary of state, a Bush supporter, Thursday evening asserted that her office had yet to receive the final recount numbers from all 67 of the state's counties -- and the overseas absentee ballots have until Nov. 17 to be received and counted.

The Bush campaign even issues a "statement on final recount" that it e-mails to reporters at 5 a.m. EST Friday. But there has yet to be a final recount. It may be that Bush will be -- I would guess that he will be -- the next president of the United States. But this is no way to handle it.

Baker comes to reporters Friday at noon to reassert this premature evaluation.

"Let me begin by saying that the American people voted on Nov. 7 and Gov. George W. Bush won 31 states with a total of 271 electoral votes. The vote here in Florida was very close and when it was counted, Gov. Bush was the winner. Now, three days later, the vote in Florida has been recounted."

Both assertions are untrue. The first count, from Election Night, was official but uncertified, so Bush was never the official winner. In fact, the margin of his "victory" was so slim -- within one-half of 1 percent -- that the state's automatic recount effort kicked in.

Then, as for the vote in Florida having been recounted, that's not the case either.

Soon it becomes clear what Baker's charge is, in addition to prematurely calling Florida for his former boss' son.

"Now the Gore campaign is calling for yet another recount in selective and predominantly Democratic counties where there were large, unexplained vote swings in their favor in the recount," Baker says.

He asserts that further recounts, especially by hand, will introduce further errors. "This frustrates the very reason why we have moved from hand counting to machine counting."

As for Palm Beach County, Baker says that there is "a rule of law" to be followed. The apparently confusing "butterfly ballot" was legal, set up by a Democrat and met with no objections before Election Day. He pooh-poohs the fact that some voters were apparently so flummoxed by the butterfly ballot that they voted twice.

As ironic as is the presence of Bill Daley -- Gore's campaign chairman, whose father allegedly helped JFK steal the election from Richard Nixon in 1960 -- so is the presence of Baker, chief antagonist of the American Jewish community in the administration of President George H.W. Bush. Baker is alleged to have said about Jews in 1992: "Fuck 'em. They didn't vote for us." One wonders how he is being received by the citizens in Palm Beach.

Regardless, Baker paints the whole dispute as sour grapes by Gore.

"I understand personally ... that it is frustrating to lose an election by a narrow margin," Baker says. "But it happens." He cites the case of Nixon in '60 and Gerald Ford's 1976 loss to Jimmy Carter.

Both "accepted the vote for the good of the country," Baker says, though it is also true that neither Nixon nor Ford had his election come down to one state's disputed and 300-some-vote margin of victory. Even if Illinois' then 27 electoral votes had been added to Nixon's 219 electoral votes, that wouldn't have propelled him to a victory. (Instead of Kennedy 303, Nixon 219, the totals would then have been Kennedy 276, Nixon 246.)

"It is important, ladies and gentlemen, that there be some finality to the election process. What if we insisted on recounts in other states?" Like Wisconsin or Iowa. But when asked about those states a minute later, he says that the Bush campaign hasn't eliminated challenges in those states from the realm of possibility. A recount is already taking place in New Mexico, which Gore slimly won.

"Let the country step back for a minute and pause and think about what's at stake here ... There is no reasonable end to this process.

"We will therefore vigorously oppose the Gore campaign's efforts to keep recounting over and over until it happens to like the result."

He opens the floor to questions. I ask if he's basing his assertion that Bush won the recount on the Associated Press' completely unofficial tally that Bush won by fewer than 300 votes.

"I'm making the assertion that Gov. Bush won the recount. You all know what the numbers are," he says.

"But that's not the official --"

"Wait a minute," Baker says. "Just a minute. Do you want an answer or do you want to make a speech? Let me say this: We know why the certifications have been delayed from these very same counties where we have these large unexplained shifts toward the other campaign. If the purpose here is to delay and endless wrangling, and recount after recount after recount, that game can be played."

Shortly after 1 p.m., the Democratic big guns walk into the Florida Senate hearing room to assert a few points of their own.

One, they say, this isn't about them, it's about the people of Florida. Two, they say serenely, everything's fine, everything's good, this is a perfectly normal situation, no big deal. Three, they say, it's the other side that's behaving like crazed banshees. And four, they want to get this over as soon as possible, too -- even though they want more time.

They're led by Daley, who kind of looks the "The Thing" from Marvel Comics' "Fantastic Four." Behind Daley strolls a lovely double-breasted-suit wearing Warren Christopher. "The people of Florida -- not us -- are the ones who want to see this election completed according to the laws of Florida," Daley says.

The recount has shown, so far, "a considerable narrowing of the margin between Vice President [Al] Gore and Gov. [George W.] Bush," Daley says. "When one considers the number of ballots yet to arrive from Americans overseas, and presumably mostly men and women in the military, then it seems very clear that the outcome here in Florida remains in doubt, as it will for several more days."

Daley says that in the last day, three of Florida's 67 counties have agreed to hand-count their ballots, as opposed to machine-counting them, "at least on a sample basis," Daley says.

The hand-count request was made "because of oddities in the computer vote totals. I hope all Americans agree that the will of the people, not a computer glitch, should select our next president."

Not in Austin, Mr. Daley.

Daley puts on a happy face, acknowledging that this whole mess -- particularly its wait -- "is frustrating" not only to the world, but "to all of us in both campaigns." He says he hopes "that our friends in the Bush campaign would join us in our efforts to get the fairest and most accurate vote count here in Florida."

But Daley also slams these "friends." "Calls for a declaration of a victor before all the votes are accurately tabulated are inappropriate," he says. "Waiting is unpleasant for all of us. But suggesting that the outcome of a vote is known before all the votes are properly tabulated" -- as the Bush campaign repeatedly has done, most notably just minutes before in the same exact place by former Secretary of States James Addison Baker III -- "is inappropriate."

He says that everyone should "carefully measure all of our words, recognizing the high stakes involved in these deliberations."

Christopher says "that if there was an escalation of rhetoric on the other side in the last few hours, I'm not inclined to join it."

But it's doubtful that the words will stay measured, especially since Daley makes it clear that the Gore campaign's take on "all the votes" being "accurately tabulated" would include the tens of thousands of nullified or mistakenly cast ballots in Palm Beach County.

"Our legal team has concluded that the ballot in Palm Beach County was unlawful, it was complained about on Election Day, a complaint that was implicitly acknowledged by the Election supervisor who put out a flier on election day warning about the problems."

When will this all be over?

"As soon as the proper procedures would allow it," Daley says, elliptically. "All of us want this as quick as possible to be over, there's no question about that."

But for the Bushies, "as soon as possible" means yesterday. Final recount final shmecount.

For the Gorebies "as soon as possible" means as soon as every Democratic Floridian has gotten the chance to vote, and vote accurately, even if he screwed up his vote because of a confusing -- but probably legal -- "butterfly ballot" with not clearly delineated and/or misaligned holes.

Additionally, Christopher calls the Bush campaign's bluff that they might challenge Iowa or Wisconsin or New Mexico. Bring it on, the old man says. "The team of Gov. Bush has every right to consider challenges in other states if they think they have an obligation to do so, and perhaps they have an obligation to do so if they regard the count as inaccurate," says the former secretary of state.

Christopher says that he and Baker had a "good meeting" on Thursday. "We talked about prior relationships. It was on a very professional basis. I would say the main result of the meeting was the opening of lines of communication between two people who are old colleagues and old friends, even though we're in opposite parties."

So clearly nothing was resolved. Both sides are digging in their heels. The Bushies are calling the race for themselves prematurely, the Gorebies are making it clear that even after the recount is final they intend to challenge whatever it was that went down in Palm Beach County on Election Day.

But there is one notable change in message: On Thursday, Daley said that the Democrats were planning on "supporting" lawsuits against the Palm Beach County Board of Elections, though he didn't make it clear what that support would entail. Today he makes no mention of such support.

"What we are seeing here is democracy in action," Daley says.

Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

MORE FROM Jake Tapper

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2000 Elections Al Gore George W. Bush