The conspiracy theorists have been out in force, convinced that the media were covering up the Florida election results to protect President Bush. That gets put to rest today, with the finding by eight news organizations that Bush would have beaten Al Gore under both of the recount plans being considered at the time.

Now the question is: How many people still care about the election deadlock that last fall felt like the story of the century -- and now faintly echoes like some distant Civil War battle?

The 10-month, $900,000 investigation -- by the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Wall Street Journal, CNN, Associated Press, St. Petersburg Times and Palm Beach Post -- was scheduled to be published in mid-September. But it was delayed after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, when the news organizations were fixated on war coverage and believed the findings would be overshadowed.

"I think it's important, but more for historical reasons than immediate-news reasons," says Alan Murray, the Journal's Washington bureau chief. "Clearly, if the issue of legitimacy wasn't resolved the day the president was sworn in, it was certainly resolved September 11. It doesn't exist anymore."

Doyle McManus, Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times (part of the Tribune Co.), agrees. "This is clearly going to compel less time and attention and passion from the public than it would have any time before September 11," he says. "We still feel there are interesting and significant things to learn here. Over time, this database could be a very valuable resource not only for historians and political scientists, but also for people trying to figure out how to make elections work better."

CNN analyst Jeff Greenfield, author of the post-election book "Oh, Waiter! One Order of Crow," says pre-September polls showed that a Bush-Gore rerun would end in a tie, but that the president now wins a trial heat by 25 points.

"That suggests to me people are so understandably eager, desperate, hungry to trust the government, to trust the president, that this stuff really has been filed away," he says. "It does seem like it's from another era."

Inevitably, some newspapers will shorthand the complex project with "Bush Wins" headlines, although Gore would have edged him out if all the so-called "undervotes" (with no clear marking for a candidate) and "overvotes" (with markings for two candidates) had been counted statewide, the study found. The president's victory was based on the two scenarios being weighed at the time -- a four-county recount requested by Gore and a statewide recount of undervotes only ordered by the Florida Supreme Court. Still, even these findings are based on human judgments about hanging chad and the like.

"We're not election supervisors," says Dan Keating, The Post's database editor. "We can't decide an election. The election's over -- George Bush is president. . . . But 100 years from now, we want this to be the definitive historical record of what was on those Florida ballots."

It's unusual, to say the least, for media outlets that live to scoop each other to be cooperating on a single project. But the task of examining 175,000 disputed ballots -- comparing both undervotes and overvotes to county-by-county standards in Florida -- would have been too expensive for any one company.

There was much backstage maneuvering about the terms of release as news outlets that feast on leaks tried to prevent their own study from leaking. Newsweek (part of The Washington Post Co.) took a pass after the consortium agreed that no one could be interviewed about the findings until Sunday afternoon -- too late for the magazine's Saturday night deadline.

Time (part of AOL Time Warner) also took a pass under its editor, Walter Isaacson, who's now chairman of CNN (another part of AOL Time Warner).

Under the so-called "4-5-10 plan," reporters were allowed to start interviews at 4 p.m. yesterday. The AP (whose inclusion means every paper in America has the story today) could send the story to its clients at 5 p.m., but with a warning to embargo publication until 10 p.m. -- when CNN could air it and the newspapers could post their stories online.

It was only a year ago that the media airlifted their troops to Tallahassee, cable went into 24-hour mode, and each legal twist and turn was breathlessly reported. But that followed a campaign in which Bush's "rats" ad and Gore's arthritic dog got far more coverage than terrorism.

Plenty of people care passionately about the Supreme Court stopping the Florida recount, especially liberals who feel Gore was robbed. But those who suspected a media coverup used Web sites and thousands of identical e-mails to demand the information. Some journalists, however, had trouble rousing themselves. "There is a 'Groundhog Day' quality to this thing," McManus says. "I have to will myself back into Florida mode."

But while the findings may be eclipsed by Afghanistan and anthrax, the who-won-Florida controversy could well resonate among voters in 2004, if not sooner.

"We shouldn't assume it's gone forever just because nobody cares about it now," Greenfield says. "This was after all about how the president of the United States was picked."

Now to the morning papers. The newspaper analyses, all working from the same numbers, fall into two categories. That is, in their headlines and opening paragraphs.

One is basically that Bush would have won, even if the recounts then in play had gone forward. The other is the Muddled Message -- either guy could have been victorious, it all depends on how you figure, etc.

The Los Angeles Times goes with a muddled headline: "Bush Wins, Gore Wins -- Depends on How Ballots Are Added Up." (For this we spent nearly a millionbucks??)

Here's the double-barreled lead: "If the U.S. Supreme Court had allowed Florida's courts to finish their abortive recount of last year's deadlocked presidential election, President Bush probably still would have won by several hundred votes, a comprehensive study of the uncounted ballots has found.

"But if the recount had been held under new vote-counting rules that Florida and other states now are adopting -- rules aimed at recording the intentions of as many voters as possible -- Democratic candidate Al Gore probably would have won, although by an even thinner margin, the study found.

"The study provides evidence that more Florida voters attempted to vote for Gore than for George W. Bush -- but so many Gore voters marked their ballots improperly that Bush received more valid votes. As a result, under rules devised by the Florida Supreme Court and accepted by the Gore campaign at the time, Bush probably would have won a recount, the study found.

"Since the study was launched, the nation's debate over the Florida recount has cooled and Bush, whose legitimacy as president already was accepted by a large majority in January, has won massive public approval for his leadership of the war against terrorism.

"The study, a painstaking inspection of 175,010 Florida ballots that were not included in the state's certified tally, found as many as 23,799 additional, potentially valid votes for Gore or Bush. The significance of these ballots depends on what standards are used to weigh their validity. Under some recount rules, Bush wins. Under others, Gore wins."

The New York Times goes with a more unambiguous Bush victory: "A comprehensive review of the uncounted Florida ballots from last year's presidential election reveals that George W. Bush would have won even if the United States Supreme Court had allowed the statewide manual recount of the votes that the Florida Supreme Court had ordered to go forward.

"Contrary to what many partisans of former Vice President Al Gore have charged, the United States Supreme Court did not award an election to Mr. Bush that otherwise would have been won by Mr. Gore. A close examination of the ballots found that Mr. Bush would have retained a slender margin over Mr. Gore if the Florida court's order to recount more than 43,000 ballots had not been reversed by the United States Supreme Court.

"Even under the strategy that Mr. Gore pursued at the beginning of the Florida standoff -- filing suit to force hand recounts in four predominantly Democratic counties -- Mr. Bush would have kept his lead, according to the ballot review conducted for a consortium of news organizations.

"But the consortium, looking at a broader group of rejected ballots than those covered in the court decisions, 175,010 in all, found that Mr. Gore might have won if the courts had ordered a full statewide recount of all the rejected ballots. This also assumes that county canvassing boards would have reached the same conclusions about the disputed ballots that the consortium's independent observers did. The findings indicate that Mr. Gore might have eked out a victory if he had pursued in court a course like the one he publicly advocated when he called on the state to 'count all the votes.'

"In addition, the review found statistical support for the complaints of many voters, particularly elderly Democrats in Palm Beach County, who said in interviews after the election that confusing ballot designs may have led them to spoil their ballots by voting for more than one candidate. More than 113,000 voters cast ballots for two or more presidential candidates. Of those, 75,000 chose Mr. Gore and a minor candidate; 29,000 chose Mr. Bush and a minor candidate. Because there was no clear indication of what the voters intended, those numbers were not included in the consortium's finaltabulations."

The Washington Post is also strongly in the Bush-wins camp: "In all likelihood, George W. Bush still would have won Florida and the presidency last year if either of two limited recounts -- one requested by Al Gore, the other ordered by the Florida Supreme Court -- had been completed, according to a study commissioned by The Washington Post and other news organizations.

"But if Gore had found a way to trigger a statewide recount of all disputed ballots, or if the courts had required it, the result likely would have been different. An examination of uncounted ballots throughout Florida found enough where voter intent was clear to give Gore the narrowest of margins.

"The study showed that if the two limited recounts had not been short-circuited -- the first by Florida county and state election officials and the second by the U.S. Supreme Court -- Bush would have held his lead over Gore, with margins ranging from 225 to 493 votes, depending on the standard. But the study also found that whether dimples are counted or a more restrictive standard is used, a statewide tally favored Gore by 60 to 171 votes.

"Gore's narrow margin in the statewide count was the result of a windfall in overvotes. Those ballots -- on which a voter may have marked a candidate's name and also written it in - were rejected by machines as a double vote on Election Day and most also would not have been included in either of the limited recounts."

The Wall Street Journal also goes with Bush, hands down:

"The U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 decision to suspend the counting of disputed presidential ballots in Florida last year remains one of the most controversial actions in the court's two centuries of history. But a year later, there's this important update: An exhaustive review of the state's ballots suggests that George W. Bush would have won anyway. . . .

"The results suggest that if the U.S. Supreme Court had allowed the vote counting ordered by the Florida Supreme Court to continue, as many Democrats had advocated, Mr. Bush still would have won the election by 493 votes. That's only a handful less than the official victory margin of 537 votes. The study also suggests that if then-Vice President Al Gore had won his original request for hand counts in just four heavily Democratic Florida counties, Mr. Bush still would have won, by 225 votes.

"In other words, despite the ferocity with which critics have assailed the logic of its decision, the findings indicate that the Supreme Court didn't steal the presidential election from Mr. Gore, as some Democrats believe. Instead, if anything can be said to have cost Mr. Gore the election, it was poor ballot design and a lack of voter education.

"None of the review's findings are likely to settle the partisan dispute over the 2000 election. The study offers plenty of grist for those on both sides of the debate. It provides strong evidence, for instance, that a clear plurality of voters went to the polls on Nov. 7, 2000, intending to vote for Mr. Gore. Thousands more Gore voters than Bush voters appear to have been foiled by a combination of their own mistakes and confusing ballots."

And don't forget: "All of the margins in the consortium's analysis are smaller than Mr. Bush's state-certified victory margin of 537 votes, or 0.009% -- so small that imperfections in the study, or the vagaries of how county officials would have counted the votes, could have altered the results."

CNN agrees: Bush is the one.

"A comprehensive study of the 2000 presidential election in Florida suggests that if the U.S. Supreme Court had allowed a statewide vote recount to proceed, Republican candidate George W. Bush would still have been elected president."

The Chicago Tribune never really finds a winner. The paper's headline: "Ballots, rules, voter error led to 2000 election muddle, review shows."

(Really makes you want to read the piece.)

"The most comprehensive study of the troubled presidential election in Florida shows the main culprits were simple and fixable: ballot design, inconsistent election rules and voter error.

"The yearlong review of the Florida election reveals that even if the U.S. Supreme Court had allowed a recount of ballots, there is no clear indication that Democrat Al Gore would have gained enough votes to triumph over Republican George W. Bush.

"A close examination of the ballots suggests that more Floridians attempted to choose Gore over Bush. But more Gore supporters improperly marked their ballots, leaving Bush with more valid votes.

"The study's findings refute some commonly held assumptions. Contrary to popular belief that first-time minority voters likely spoiled significant numbers of ballots, the black voter turnout did not appear to affect problems at the polls. In fact, the percentage of blacks turning out to vote was barely higher than in the previous presidential contest.

"The study does not support charges that the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to halt recounts altered the course of history. The numbers suggest that Bush would have prevailed had the counting continued under the standards set by the Florida Supreme Court.

"Finally, each campaign's strategy for recounts now seems flawed. In fact, had Gore's top legal argument been granted -- that four specific counties get a hand recount -- it would have benefited Bush. Had one of Bush's arguments been accepted -- favoring the counting of ballot chads detached at twocorners -- it would have benefited Gore."

Does this settle things once and for all? Hardly.

Many Gore supporters will still argue that their man got hosed. Many others will take issue with the media consortium's math, or its methods, or its conclusions.

Even some Bush backers will be left with the uneasy feeling that if some ballots had been designed more clearly, their guy would be back in Austin.

But the country only has one president at a time, and right now it's George W.

Can we all go back to worrying about Mazar-e Sharif now?

Hitting the Rudy Jackpot The New York Daily News has found a creative way to make some money.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, the tabloid solicited readers and advertisers to thank the city's top cheerleader, Rudy Giuliani. "Join Other New Yorkers in Our Thank You, Mr. Mayor Greetings Section," it said, for as little as $16 for four lines.

"This is a paid advertising section -- an advertising vehicle for the Daily News," says spokesman Ken Frydman, a former press secretary for Giuliani. "This is business." And a lucrative business to boot, yielding 17 pages of ads yesterday (including 93 classifieds).

One businessman with ties to Giuliani says he was solicited to buy as much as a $16,000 full-page ad -- and told the surrounding editorial copy would be "very positive. . . . It just seems so inappropriate, like the Daily News is trying to make money off the reputation of the mayor."

Frydman insists the campaign is "not related to the tragedy," and notes that the News has raised $4.5 million through a separate fund for surviving relatives of police, fire and emergency personnel. Ten percent of the Rudy ad money will go to that fund.

The New York Post quickly copied the idea, netting 12 pages of ads (but no classifieds) in its Friday tribute to Giuliani.

Not a Pretty Picture

At the Panama City, Fla., News Herald, chief copy editor Ray Glenn issued the following memo (invoking Editor Hal Foster): "DO NOT USE photos on Page 1A showing civilian casualties from the U.S. war on Afghanistan. Our sister paper in Fort Walton Beach has done so and received hundreds and hundreds of threatening e-mails and the like.

"Also per Hal's order, DO NOT USE wire stories which lead with civilian casualties from the U.S. war on Afghanistan. They should be mentioned further down in the story. If the story needs rewriting to play down the civilian casualties, DO IT."

In a response posted on, Foster said: "I'm not afraid of running casualty photos if there is context -- that is, if casualties are a major part of that day's story." Foster also said he didn't want to play up civilian casualties "if there were very few of them."


"Over 400,000 Americans lost jobs last month . . ." -- New York Times, Nov. 3

"Unemployment Soars by 700,000" -- The Washington Post, Nov. 3