Michael Whouley, a strategist for Vice President Gore, sounded the alarm at 2 a.m. Nashville time that the vice president should not publicly concede to George W. Bush: Florida was too close to call.
By 4:30 a.m., Whouley, political consultant Jill Alper and lawyer Ron Klain scrambled into action. By 7 a.m., a chartered planeload of lawyers and political operatives was jetting to Tallahassee, the new beachhead in a presidential battle that has not yet ended nearly three weeks after Election Day.
The Republicans were not far behind. In Washington that morning, former top Justice Department lawyer George Terwilliger got a call from Don Evans, chairman of Bush's campaign. By evening, Terwilliger and two of his partners were on the ground in Tallahassee, along with about 10 others from Florida, Washington and Austin.
Hundreds of lawyers and political operatives from the two campaigns have invaded Florida to continue their trench warfare, with Gore forces scrounging for votes to overturn Bush's narrow lead in Florida and the Bush team trying to block them at every turn. Up to now, each side seems to have taken the view that the man who wins first wins the war.
With some of their strategy set in motion even before Election Day, the two sides have launched a fierce battle of maneuver that involves a dozen or more lawsuits, streetside rallies in counties where ballots are being recounted, constant media spinning, round-the-clock temperature-taking and, increasingly, the deployment of big names to carry the fight in the media.
On Friday, Republicans delivered former GOP presidential candidate Robert J. Dole to sit at the Broward County canvassing board to monitor the the count of ballots with dimpled chads. Not to be outdone, Democrats yesterday dispatched former Senate majority leader George J. Mitchell with the public message that certification of the election in Florida tonight will not be the end of the fight.
Opposition research teams that once tried to dig up dirt on the other candidate are now turning their attention to the recount. David Ginsberg, Gore's "oppo" chief during the campaign, has been exploring election procedures in Bush's home state of Texas. Republican National Committee research director Barbara Comstock has moved her shop to Tallahassee and has her staff monitoring the recounts.
Ground zero in this war for the disputed presidency is Tallahassee, where each side's generals--former secretaries of states James A. Baker III and Warren Christopher--direct armies of attorneys and plot their campaigns for the White House via conference call with their commanders in chief-in-waiting.
The two political campaigns have set up dueling war rooms only four blocks from each other in Tallahassee. From there, they have assembled legal troops to fight over military ballots, drafted court filings to challenge deadlines, and rounded up observers to monitor ballot recounts in four counties. From there, they are plotting their battle this week before the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.
"This is the largest peacetime mobilization of legal talent the country's history," said Patton Boggs lawyer Benjamin L. Ginsberg, who has been the Bush campaign's general counsel. Just how many lawyers are there? "I have no earthly idea," Ginsberg said.
Holed up in Florida GOP headquarters, Baker is in a corner office. More than 100 lawyers working for Bush have commandeered much of the top two floors of the three-story building, five or six to an office and as many as a dozen in the big conference room. The noise is constant and mind-jarring. Strewn on the floor are legal briefs and motions bristling with Post-It notes.
Across town at the law firm of Berger, Davis & Singerman--the headquarters of Gore's chief Florida fundraiser, Mitchell Berger--dozens of Democratic lawyers from all over the country are jammed into five small offices and corridors lined with desks. "It was like assembling a law firm overnight," said Gore adviser Klain.
Bush has been shuttling between the governor's mansion in Austin and his ranch in rural Crawford, Tex., usually getting his first such communication at 9 a.m., often with Baker, running mate Richard B. Cheney and Evans on the line. Gore is running his battle plan from the dining room table at his Naval Observatory mansion, regularly tapping away on his hand-held e-mail device with campaign chairman William Daley and his Florida team.
For the Democrats, the battle began taking shape weeks before Election Day. Sensing that there could be vote recounts in any of 20 hotly contested states, top Gore staffers lined up recount experts all over the country to stand by.
Democrats also expected Bush to win a large percentage of absentee ballots from the military, and when those some of those ballots were counted 10 days after the election in Florida, they were prepared with a team of as many as six or seven lawyers in every county.
The Republicans were ready as well. Sens. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) told Bush lawyers in Tallahassee that Democrats were worried about a sizable military vote--that in fact Republicans had killed a bill that would have limited voting on military bases. Two days after the election, David Aufhauser from Williams & Connolly was readying Bush forces to monitor the overseas military ballot count in each of Florida's 67 counties.
"I got together with some very capable lawyers in Tallahassee and told them I needed respected trial lawyers in each county, someone the canvassing board is going to respect. We spent four days assembling teams," said Aufhauser. "Then the lawyers asked us, 'What's the law?' so we put together a briefing book."
Democrats were indeed loaded for bear, challenging many of the overseas ballots for lack of a military postmark, witness signature or date. An army of Democratic lawyers, armed with a five-page memo from Tallahassee headquarters on challenging military ballots, succeeded in getting 40 percent of the late-arriving overseas ballots thrown out--a tactical victory that would quickly prove a strategic dilemma.
Within 24 hours, pundits and even some Democrats were publicly castigating the Gore camp for trying to exclude military ballots. Republicans in Tallahassee were soon circulating a statement from retired Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf blasting Gore as an unworthy commander in chief; Democrats scrambled to get his running mate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, on five Sunday talk shows to insist the Gore team wanted to see all votes counted.
For their part, Republicans have been aggressive raising questions about the manual recounts, deploying not only Dole, but also Govs. John Engler of Michigan, Marc Racicot of Montana and Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey to observe the canvassing board in Broward--and to denounce the process before the cameras gathered outside.
Many of Washington's premier law firms have teams aiding the Bush effort, most of them with lawyers volunteering their time. Theodore Olson and a team from Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher are handling the case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Lawyers from White & Case and Williams & Connolly have been on the scene since just after Election Day. They have been joined by lawyers from Cooper, Carvin & Rosenthal; Covington & Burling; Baker Botts; Patton Boggs; Hogan & Hartson; Akin Gump and others.
"I'm surrounded by more former Supreme Court clerks than I ever thought possible," Ginsberg said.
Commanding Gore's Tallahassee operation is Klain, his longtime chief of staff and a former top aide to Attorney General Janet Reno. He reports to Christopher and Daley, but because of his close personal ties to Gore he is also in continual contact with the vice president back in Washington.
Klain brought in David Boies, the litigator who led the Justice Department's successful antitrust case against Microsoft, to head up the legal strategy. Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe flew in to successfully persuade U.S. District Judge Donald Middlebrooks not to end recounts in three counties (and will soon appear before the U.S. Supreme Court to oppose Bush's attempt to nullify the recount).
It's controlled chaos akin to the heat of trial, say lawyers on both sides.
"You just cannot believe these conditions," said one top Bush strategist. "People are working on top of crates, on top of ice coolers. People are on folding chairs. I don't think there is a paralegal in this place--lawyers are doing everything."
K Street lawyers are taking three catered meals a day on paper plates. "When food arrives, everybody goes out to get it because it will be gone," said the Bush strategist. "We haven't been in a restaurant since we've been here."
Staff writers Jo Becker in Tallahassee, Ceci Connolly in Washington and Serge F. Kovaleski in Broward County contributed to this report.