If there was any lingering doubt that America is still in full-blown campaign mode, it was laid to rest by George W. Bush's campaign Saturday. Led by communications director Karen Hughes and Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, the Bushies launched a machine-gun assault on the Florida recount process, alleging everything from Democratic voter fraud to blatant attempts to disallow votes from enlisted men and women overseas, many of them presumably Bush supporters.
"No one who aspires to be commander in chief should seek to unfairly deny the votes of the men and women he would seek to command," Hughes said.
Meanwhile, the New York Times reported that Bruce Rogow, a lawyer representing the Palm Beach canvassing board, was contacted personally by Al Gore advisor Warren Christopher, who lobbied him in a telephone call to advise the canvassing board to restart the county's hand recount. That recount is expected to add votes to Gore's total.
"There was nothing subtle about this," Rogow said. "Warren Christopher does not call me every day to chat. But I found it inappropriate ... These people care more about the spin than the law."
And while the spin wars continue on the airwaves and attempts to influence public officials are waged behind the scenes, Bush's advisors say the campaign crew is growing weary. "A lot of people are very tired here," said Gordon Johndroe, an assistant to Hughes. "We just didn't expect to still be in campaign mode."
But here it is, 12 days after Election Day, and the second-floor office at 301 Congress St. in downtown Austin is still buzzing. Campaign manager Don Evans is zigging and zagging frantically across the office as a press conference is about to begin. When he spots the horde of reporters staked out outside the office, he does an immediate 180 and disappears.
While the Gore campaign operation in Nashville has been shut down and members of the team deployed to Washington and Florida, the Bush campaign strategy continues to germinate in Austin. Hughes, Evans, chief strategist Karl Rove and Andrew Card, the would-be White House chief of staff in a Bush administration, huddle daily to go over the day's talking points and legal strategies. Bush running mate Dick Cheney is also playing a key role in plotting the Republicans' next moves.
"They're on the phone constantly with Secretary [James] Baker in Florida," Johndroe said, "and the governor is kept abreast of everything."
On Saturday the Austin powers decided to come out swinging. The press conference was worthy of Johnnie Cochran as Hughes and Racicot did all they could to raise doubts about the process underway in Florida. By throwing out a wide range of charges and allegations, and hoping desperately that at least some of them will stick, the Bushies are clearly aiming to discredit both the recounts and the Gore campaign itself.
The Bush assault raised the specter of everything from chads being retaped onto Bush ballots to Bush ballots being placed in stacks of Gore votes to the vote counters using ballots as fans. "What is occurring here over the course of time is irreparable damage, and it's occurring as a result of 1,000 wounds to this process of selecting the next president of the United States of America," Racicot said.
Racicot also cited a Miami Herald piece that included information about 38 convicted felons -- "most of them registered Democrats," Racicot pointed out -- who illegally cast votes on Nov. 7. "There's something terribly, terribly wrong with what's going on in the state of Florida," he said. "How can felons be allowed to vote while the men and women in our armed forces cannot? That's simply not right."
The statement that Racicot read on Saturday was obviously written by Bush's core brain trust -- even his style of speaking sounded familiar. In citing one example of alleged vote fraud in Florida, the Montana governor attributed it as coming from "Jim Williams, a Republican observer who supported Governor Bush, because parenthetically his son serves in the military overseas and he doesn't agree with the Clinton-Gore nation-building policy, just to let you know the facts and circumstances."
This type of parenthetical phrase is exactly the kind of rhetoric Hughes routinely injects into her remarks. Watching her stand off to the side of the lectern, picking at her fingernails while Racicot spoke, it became eminently clear that she and the rest of Team Bush are still carefully staging everything.
Perhaps Racicot's most compelling argument was that a full, accurate vote count is simply not possible under the American electoral system, and that the Gore campaign's spin about only wanting a fair tally is disingenuous.
"See, I think the American people, and frankly, the people in the press and perhaps everyone not intimately familiar with this process, have believed that there is a level of perfection here that's not obtainable, and has never been there," he said. "This is the reason that when you make the commitment to machine balloting, you have to live with that commitment -- because you simply can't guarantee trustworthiness beyond that."
That argument obviously didn't wash with the Gore camp. "I think people ought to use the Texas standard, which is similar to the Florida standard," said Gore spokesman Chris Lehane. "When there's a close election and there's a dispute, you go to a hand recount. That's the law in Texas and that's the law in Florida." Lehane added that it was "disappointing that the Bush campaign has decided to inject such raw, crass partisan politics into a process that ought to be guided by our laws."
Democratic Sen. Bob Graham of Florida said, in response to the allegations being flung from Austin, "I'm extremely disappointed that Republicans insist on hurling reckless, partisan charges that disparage a lawful process being conducted by public-minded local officials ... These individuals have given their time and energy to accurately and fairly count every lawful ballot in Florida and I am grateful to them."