Pals of Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush emerged in the Florida state Capitol on Monday to provide emotional and legal support for their candidates. And in doing so, they presented an outline for their respective candidates' plans and counterplans in the escalating legal battle for the Sunshine State's 25 electoral votes.
At around noon, leading congressional Democrats Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the Senate minority leader, and Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, the House minority leader, made a great public show of their support for Gore as the vice president's legal team filed its contest to Sunday night's certified election results.
Shortly afterward, local Florida legislative leaders followed suit for Bush, with the president of the Florida state Senate, John McKay -- a Republican from Bradenton, just north of Sarasota -- presenting a "friend of the court" brief to help Bush's case before the U.S. Supreme Court, arguments for which will be heard on Friday. And Florida House Speaker Tom Feeney announced plans for a special committee that will meet Tuesday morning to examine the Legislature's role in selecting the state's electors.
"Today the Florida Legislature has filed an amicus brief asking the U.S. Supreme Court to stay part of the [Florida] Supreme Court ruling," McKay said. "We firmly and unequivocably [sic] believe that the Florida Supreme Court overstepped its proper boundaries in an arbitrary manner, because this matter is purely a legislative responsibility."
There was a tad more intrigue -- with a sad and pathetic touch -- in the Democratic effort if only because Gore and Gephardt were once the bitterest of enemies.
They hated each other. Gephardt, in particular, detested Gore for the aggressive campaign he waged against him during the contentious 1988 presidential primaries. During one debate, Gephardt, a Missouri congressman, compared then-Tennessee Sen. Al Gore to Al Haig. Gore responded that in making that remark, Dick Gephardt sounded like Dick Nixon.
Monday afternoon at the Florida state Senate, Gephardt, the House minority leader, cast that baggage aside to stand with Daschle and make a public display of unity for Gore's latest political gambit, holding a press conference -- and then a totally staged conference call with Gore and his running mate, Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn. -- just hours after Gore's legal team challenged the election results in Palm Beach, Miami-Dade and Nassau counties.
In the face of this controversial and unprecedented legal action -- and amid rumors that certain Democratic members of the House and Senate are growing weary of Gore's relentlessness -- the two held hands and put on a happy face.
"We support the contest filed by the Gore campaign this morning, asking that these votes be duly counted and certified," Gephardt proclaimed from behind the lectern in the Florida Senate hearing room.
"This is the right thing to do for the people of Florida, for the people of America and our democracy," Gephardt said. "Al Gore and Joe Lieberman won the popular vote by over 300,000 votes in the country. And they have a lead -- they are three votes shy of a majority -- in the Electoral College. We believe that a full, fair and accurate count will show that they won in Florida as well."
Then the press was shepherded -- like pigs into a slaughterhouse, one reporter griped -- to a small room where Gore and Lieberman just happened to be having the casual conference call with Gephardt and Daschle; just a few guys rappin', you know, no big deal.
"We were just given a new tally this morning that says that if we counted all the votes that have already been counted in some of the recount, we'd actually be ahead by nine votes, so we're encouraged by that," Daschle told Gore. "I think there's overwhelming support for your effort and a realization that if we completed the count there is little doubt that you'd be ahead. So we wanted to come down and be as emphatic as we can that we support you and your effort and we support this full and fair recount."
The nine-vote figure that Daschle cited is actually outdated. It came from subtracting a few things from the certified 537-vote difference:
The Thanksgiving stuffing, however, ultimately wasn't included in the suit. "We made the decision this morning not to do the overseas ballots," a Gore attorney said, saying that they wanted "a clean, crisp contest action that just dealt with counting errors."
Additionally, the Gore team is suing Miami-Dade to force its canvassing board to conduct a full hand recount, and Palm Beach County to force its canvassing board to apply less stringent chad-judgments on its ballots.
"Al and Joe," Gephardt said casually on the conference call, "let me just add, that [as] Joe knows, we've been having many conference calls with the House Democrats and they have been entirely supportive and continue to be entirely supportive of going ahead with this contest for the purpose of finding out how everybody voted in this election. Our members feel very strongly that this needs to be done."
Daschle chimed back in with one of the lamest endorsements I've ever heard. "Our colleagues were impressed with your offer to count all of the counties and to live with the results of that effort," the soft-spoken minority leader said to Gore. "And to have that concept endorsed by the Supreme Court also, I think, impressed a lot of our colleagues. As I've talked to a number of people, I think the fact that you've repeated it now a couple of times is also, I think, an encouraging sign that you're willing to live with the results and so are we ... We just want to applaud your efforts and thank you for carrying on as you have so far," Daschle concluded.
From Washington, the vice president's voice buzzed in. "Thank you both for your friendship and for your participation in this," Gore intoned in his typical attempt at sincerity. "You and I believe very strongly that every vote has to be counted. We hear statements on the other side quite frequently to the effect that we had a count and a recount and another recount -- but that's really beside the point.
"What we're talking about is many thousands of votes that have never been counted at all," Gore said, apparently referring to both the late Palm Beach County numbers, and the 9,000 or so ballots in Miami-Dade County that were rejected by the machines and haven't been hand counted. "The integrity of our democracy depends upon the consent of the governed, freely expressed, in an election where every vote is counted.
"I appreciate all the hard work that you guys are doing," Gore added. "And Joe is right here with me."
Then Lieberman briefly spoke up. "Very briefly, thank you, both of you are leaders," he said. "You have been steadfast and direct in the most encouraging way. Thank you for taking the time to go to Florida."
As if the world needed another display of Democratic Kumbaya, minutes later, at 2:20 p.m., the Gore team arranged a conference call for reporters to talk to the two congressional leaders. At this point, Daschle had clearly been told that the nine-vote margin was no longer operable, because he dropped it.
"We think that there may be 100 votes that separate the two candidates," Daschle said. He noted that all the uncounted ballots and such will be available for review under the Freedom of Information Act, and surely someone will review them, providing the country with a comprehensive and "accurate" count.
"There will be an accurate count," he noted, calling it "tragic" that the world might learn of this accurate count number three or four months hence because of the work of a common citizen. "That's in large part our message today," he says.
Gephardt, too, had been briefed to veer away from the "nine-vote" margin of victory. With the 157 votes from Miami-Dade, 52 from Nassau County and 215 from Palm Beach, the Democrats narrow the gap with the Republicans to within a "50-vote lead," he said. "There are 9,000 votes at least in Miami-Dade County that were not recounted or hand counted ... The certification is inaccurate and wrong."
A reporter asked Gephardt what happened to the nine-vote margin. He calculated it, mentioning the "Thanksgiving stuffing" as "additional questionable ballots that have come in from other counties that are unexplained at this point," but then added that "even if you don't go to all those other counties," if you "look at the fact that there are 9,000-plus ballots that have never been counted," there needs to be more counting done.
What about poll numbers that show that Americans want this thing to be over?
Gephardt said that their feelings are "based on the supposition that what the secretary of state said was accurate. When people find out ... that this thing is really a 50- or 100-vote difference," they'll change their minds.
At 3 p.m. or so, across the Capitol rotunda, Speaker Feeney held a public hearing to discuss, among other matters, the special joint committee meeting. Feeney, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's lieutenant gubernatorial running mate in his losing 1994 race, and a George W. Bush elector, spoke in a low-key voice and refused to discuss "hypotheticals." The hearing is just to examine what role the Florida Legislature may play in the presidential contest, if need be, he said.
Appearing jointly with Feeney, state House Democrat leader Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach expressed concern about the committee, the brief McKay filed earlier and the cost of the three attorneys Feeney has retained.
They are: Harvard law professors Einer Elhauge and Charles Fried, and Roger Magnuson. Fried is a Reagan administration solicitor general and campaign advisor to Bush. Magnuson has written extensively against gay rights, and is dean of Oak Brook College of Law in Fresno, Calif. Oak Brook is an unaccredited school that declares in its mission statement that its purpose is to "establish the Biblical foundations of truth, righteousness, justice, mercy, equity, integrity, and the fear of God in legal education and in the professional arenas of law and government policy."
Despite his stance against hypotheticals, at the conclusion of his hearing the tousle-haired Feeney did offer one example of an instance when he thought the Legislature would not need to involve itself.
"If the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Florida Supreme Court had overstepped its bounds ... that's one example how I would feel that our branch of government has been vindicated," he said.