Let the Gore bashing begin

Even Democrats are tiring of pregnant chads, and the ugly postmortems are starting for a campaign that's not quite dead.

By Anthony York

Published November 21, 2000 11:17AM (EST)

As the legal wrangling in Florida drags on, signs of recount fatigue are beginning to become evident even among Democrats. And so is latent anger about the lackluster campaign run by Vice President Al Gore, which led to the obsessive chad-counting in Florida that now paralyzes the nation.

On Monday a frustrated Garry South, senior strategist for California Gov. Gray Davis -- who could be among the Democratic front-runners in the early race for 2004 -- blasted Gore for blowing a race that was his to lose.

"The wonder of this race is not that it boiled down to several hundred votes in the state of Florida. It's that it was a horse race to begin with. You have unparalleled prosperity, peace and a candidate who's much more experienced running his fourth national campaign. And he blew it, in my judgment. It's pretty deeply ingrained in Democrats that he blew this thing to an empty suit, an intellectually lazy frat rat who just happens to be the governor of Texas."

Expect the postmortems to get ugly. An incredulous South, for instance, says the Gore team protested Davis' last-minute invitation to President Clinton to stump in California the week before the campaign, going so far as to deny Clinton the right to speak in front of a Gore-Lieberman banner.

In other bad news for Gore, on the front page of Monday's Los Angeles Times, Gore megadonor Peter Buttenwieser did not wait for the Florida result to blast the vice president.

"My own feeling is that Gore had a really terrific chance to win, and I think he squandered that chance. We ran a bad campaign at virtually every level," he said. Not exactly what you want the guy who ponied up $1.3 million this election cycle to say about his investment.

Meanwhile, Democrats are becoming increasingly vocal about pushing for Gore to abide by the decision of the Florida Supreme Court, whatever that decision may be, and bring this campaign to a close.

Running mate Joe Lieberman rallied more than 100 congressional Democrats to boost sagging morale on the Hill Friday night and quell the brewing rebellion among some members of his own party.

Centrist Rep. Cal Dooley, D-Calif., acknowledged that "a lot of people are concerned that the patience of the American people may expire." That patience, he added, could be tested "if there is further legal action by either Vice President Gore or Gov. Bush."

Dooley's sentiments were echoed over the weekend by Democrats and Republicans alike. Former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn and Louisiana Sen. John Breaux both urged Gore to live with results of the recount and the Supreme Court's decision, as did Republicans Howard Baker and Bob Dole. But Dooley said that to his knowledge, there has been no moment analogous to Barry Goldwater's visit with Nixon in 1974 to tell the president he no longer had the support of his party in his legal fight.

In this week's issue of Time, Eric Pooley reports that Gore campaign manager Bill Daley and recount observer Warren Christopher promised the Democratic congressional leadership that Gore would not continue contesting the election if he failed to make up ground in the hand recounts.

In still more bad news for the Gore campaign, Democratic Attorney General Bob Butterworth, who served as Gore's Florida campaign chairman, ruled that votes from overseas without postmarks should be counted. Butterworth's ruling comes after a weekend when the Gore team found itself on the defensive for trying to throw out military votes on a technicality.

Some Democrats were alarmed by the Gore team's new focus on the status of pregnant and dimpled chads -- votes which so far haven't counted for either candidate. It seemed no coincidence that Gore's attorneys became more vocal about marked but unpunched chads as it became clear that the manual recounts may not give Gore the boost he needs to edge Bush. As of Monday afternoon, with 515 of 608 precincts recounted, Gore only picked up 119 votes in Broward County. In Palm Beach, with 20 percent of the county's vote retabulated, Gore picked up only three votes.

San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, an outspoken Democrat, says those returns mean Gore has already lost. "George Bush is going to be the next president, and he's going to regret he ever won," Brown told the San Francisco Chronicle. "Just as Al Gore would have regretted having won."

But Brown and others blame Gore, not Florida ballot problems, for putting a Republican in the White House. Brown called the race between Gore and Bush a choice between "the insufferable and the incompetent."

"There are a lot of Democrats out there who believe that if Clinton were eligible to run for a third term, this thing would have been over months ago," South said. "He would have sliced and diced this shallow amateur until he didn't know what hit him."

Instead, South said, Gore ran away from Clinton "in a childish attempt to do this on his own." To underscore the pettiness of the Gore campaign, and its level of Clinton paranoia, South said Gore was still bristling about Davis' move to call Clinton to California over the objections of the Gore campaign.

South said the Gore camp wouldn't let Davis use a Gore/Lieberman banner as a backdrop when Clinton spoke. "They wouldn't even allow their state coordinator to fly around the state on Air Force One. They refused to pay for it. That's how ridiculous the whole thing was."

When Gore came to California on Oct. 31, only his second trip to the Golden State since the Democratic National Convention, he "was still fussing, saying he was concerned about the Clinton visit," South said. "Finally the governor told him, 'Look, I've won four statewide campaigns here. Will you please give me the benefit of the doubt on this? It's going to help, not going to hurt." In the end, Gore carried California overwhelmingly.

South said that if Gore loses, whoever carries the Democratic mantle into 2004 is not going to fear Clinton cooties. "If Gore loses this race, whoever runs next time will reach back to Bill Clinton to reaffirm to Democrats that the terrain has not shifted dramatically underneath them; it was that we were incapable of capitalizing on the successes of the last eight years. I belive it is still Clinton's party, in all reality. He's still the star."

"Over the last few days, I think there's been a little bit of a shift here," said South, who as Davis' go-to guy will undoubtedly begin fielding calls about 2004 should Bush emerge victorious. "The allegations that the Gore camp was disqualifying military ballots right and left is not a positive factor. There's been a change of circumstance here that really kind of chemically changed the feeling about this race. But I think that the way these two candidates campaigned and the way they have comported themselves since Election Day calls into question whether either one of them has a political future."

Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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