| || ELECTIONS 2000/ White House
Analysis: After Timeout, 2 Tests Loom
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 18, 2000; Page A1
From the beginning of the battle for Florida, Texas Gov. George W. Bush built his strategy around the goal of grabbing the high ground against Vice President Gore by having the results in the presidential race certified, if not quite sealed, sometime today. Yesterday the Florida Supreme Court demolished that plan.
By ordering Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris not to certify the election pending the results of a Monday hearing before the court, the Florida justices robbed Bush of the psychological advantage he hoped to have this weekend as the apparent winner of Florida's 25 electoral votes and therefore as the presumptive president-elect.
What was particularly worrisome to Republicans late yesterday was that the court prevented Harris from acting to certify a winner but did nothing to stop the process of hand counting that Democrats hope will produce enough votes to give Gore the election. "There would be no concern if they had said both of these things must stop," a GOP official said.
A senior adviser to Bush said, "I think it's left us surprised. It's obviously an unusual step for the court to rule when neither party had requested action. ... Many of us were hoping for some finality over the weekend. Now that has been pushed back until Monday afternoon."
The decision put Bush and Gore on far more equal footing politically as the Florida election nears a possible resolution. Bush maintained a lead as the remaining overseas absentee ballots were being totaled, but Gore was inching his way upward in the recounting.
As elated as Democrats were by the sudden turn of events yesterday, however, Gore still needs two victories in the next few days to give him the presidency. First he needs a ruling from the Florida Supreme Court that would ensure the inclusion of the hand counting from Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties in the final results. Second and even more important, he needs to produce enough additional votes from the hand counting to overtake Bush's lead.
Neither was certain last night. There was no way of knowing how the state high court will rule on the question of whether Harris exceeded her authority or acted arbitrarily in excluding the hand counts. What was somewhat more clear was that Gore stands to gain votes from the hand counting. Whether it would change the outcome will take a few more days to determine.
The Florida Supreme Court decision to stop Harris from certifying the election today had the effect of calling a timeout to the dueling public relations efforts mounted by the two campaigns. Inevitably the Florida dispute was headed for the state's highest court, as the flurry of motions over the past few days signaled. Yesterday's events helped to clarify how and when the battle between the two camps might end.
"This isn't a game of spinning any more and it isn't a game of lawyers' press conferences," said Leon E. Panetta, the former White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration. "This is a game that very much rests with the Supreme Court of Florida and I think frankly both sides have to be very careful of having to try to influence that decision."
Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) said yesterday's events put the country closer to knowing who the next president will be. "It's called the Supreme Court for a reason," Breaux said. "I think that when the Supreme Court ultimately rules that both sides should accept it and end it. ... To drag it out any further than that would not cause either side any good."
Few days in this extraordinary drama have produced such extremes as occurred yesterday, with mood swings in both camps that were described as "about as dramatic as you can get."
For much of the day, Democrats were in despair over a ruling by Leon County Circuit Judge Terry P. Lewis upholding Harris's decision to exclude the manual recounting in selected counties from her certified results. "Most people thought it wouldn't be so clear cut, that there would be some wiggle room," a concerned Gore adviser said hours after the Lewis decision.
Then, with the state Supreme Court order yesterday afternoon enjoining Harris from certifying the results today, it was the Bush camp that had to deal with disappointment. The court order disrupted hopes inside the Bush operation for a possible victory speech and a move into the kind of public transition activities for which Bush was criticized last week. Gore advisers already were working on talking points in anticipation of Bush claiming victory.
Until the state Supreme Court order, Gore and his team were preparing to put on a public show of strength to rally Democrats, with Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) issuing a statement urging Harris not to act precipitously before the court had a chance to consider the issue.
At 4 p.m., Gore's vice presidential running mate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), began a conference call with about 75 House Democrats to update them on the legal strategy. Gore advisers Bob Shrum and Monica Dixon broke into the call to report the news from the state Supreme Court. Suddenly, Democrats were ecstatic, Republicans nervous.
"What this has done is extend the contest and it does not allow them in a preemptive way to declare the election over tomorrow [Saturday]," one Democrat said yesterday. "I think that's been their expressed goal, to get a declaration of victory as early as possible and put the Democrats in the posture of having to climb up the hill again. They don't have that now."
Republicans understood that, even if Harris had certified the election results in Florida, the legal battles and the hand counting in South Florida meant the election fight would not end at that point. But they believed, with the Democrats, that certification created a huge obstacle to Gore.
"There was a feeling on part of many attorneys that once the election was finally certified it would have been very difficult to undo that certification," a senior Bush adviser said.
Both sides continued to cling to reading tea leaves from the state Supreme Court. Former secretary of state James A. Baker III, Bush's field commander in Florida, said nothing the court had done yesterday hinted that the justices would rule against Harris. "We remain confident . . . the Supreme Court will find the secretary of state properly exercised her discretion" in barring manual recounts, he said.
Gore advisers, however, continued to take hope from the court's repeated statements allowing the hand counting to proceed. Gore lawyers last night were struck by the final sentence of the court's order yesterday, which said it was not the intent of the order to stop the hand counting from being completed and reported to Harris's office. The word "not" was printed in capital letters.
Presidential scholar Charles O. Jones said the events of the day left matters more uncertain than they had once seemed. "The court doesn't say she's [Harris] wrong, it doesn't say she's right. It just offers another uncertainty. And all one can do is wait not knowing how it's going to turn out." But he said the effect was more troubling for Bush than for Gore.
The legal arguments will be joined in court on Monday, with the state Supreme Court being asked to second-guess an elected official who, a lower court has said, acted within her authority. But Republicans fear that even if that is the case, the Bush campaign will have a terribly difficult time claiming victory in Florida if the hand counts show Gore with more votes.
Which is why the court's action to let the hand counting continue while freezing a decision on who was ahead at the deadline established for determining the outcome of the election left the Republicans so on edge yesterday.
"We're beginning to feel like the American basketball team at the 1972 Olympics," one Republican said. "How many last shots will they get? They lost the vote. They lost the recount. Looks like they'll lose the absentee ballots-yet we're still denied some finality to the process."
Staff writer Ceci Connolly contributed to this report.