The Magazine

The Real November Surprise

The Gore campaign's Florida offensive caught the Bush camp off guard

Nov 20, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 10 • By MATTHEW REES
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AS FURIOUS as Republicans were last week about Al Gore's "attempted coup d'etat," they also were heard grumbling about the Bush campaign's initially tepid response to the Gore offensive. "I'm afraid Bush may win the battle but lose the war," said a leading Republican operative, fearing the post-election atmosphere could be so poisoned as to make governing all but impossible. He contrasted the Bush campaign's bunker mentality with the Gore campaign's unrelenting effort to taint the legitimacy of the Florida vote.

But by the weekend, Republican grumbling had dissipated. At a Tallahassee press conference on Friday, Bush emissary James Baker was judged to have struck an appropriately tough but measured tone, while Gore campaign chairman William Daley, in a subsequent appearance, was considerably more subdued than he'd been the day before (it didn't hurt that a recount had showed Bush leading in Florida by 327 votes). As for George W. Bush, in a brief session with the press Friday afternoon, he demonstrated cool confidence, trading friendly barbs with reporters and telling them, "I'm in the process of planning, in a responsible way, a potential administration."

The good feeling among leading Republicans will persist as long as there are no major stumbles en route to Bush's being certified as the next president. But the slow reaction to the Gore offensive is a reminder, say GOP leaders, of the risks associated with the insular nature of the Bush inner circle.

One of the complaints about the Bush campaign was that other than Baker, few seasoned politicos were summoned during last week's crisis. This left matters in the hands of Bush aides skilled at running a campaign but judged unprepared to counter the Democratic jihad. Republicans said it should not have taken the Bush team approximately 30 hours to respond to Democratic charges about the Palm Beach County "butterfly" ballot. The slow response allowed a one-sided cacophony to develop in the press and left the public thinking the Gore campaign's charges must have merit. At a Thursday press conference, Bush strategist Karl Rove did display a butterfly ballot used in Cook County, Illinois, home of Gore campaign chairman Daley, but there was surprise in GOP circles that it had taken so long to produce it (Rove received the ballot from a company called ESS that prints ballots).

Bush aides wanted to stay above the fray, saying they didn't need to answer every charge made by the Gore campaign. That was a principled position, Republicans said, but naive given the stakes and the extreme tactics Gore and aides like Bob Shrum have resorted to to win elections.

By Thursday afternoon the campaign had abandoned its laid-back posture. Bush aides gained a fuller appreciation of what they were up against when they learned that the Gore campaign, in a conference call that day, had urged union leaders to send 40 labor lawyers to Florida to help contest the election. Bush aides also learned that Peter Knight, a long-time Gore confidant and money man, was boasting of having received $ 4 million in commitments to fund a recount effort in Florida. That was followed by Daley's strident press conference. "If the will of the people is to prevail," he said, "Al Gore should be awarded a victory in Florida and be our next president." (The comment drew strong criticism from editorial writers at the Washington Post and New York Times.)

Rove, campaign chairman Don Evans, and spokeswoman Karen Hughes signaled their shift at a press briefing of their own on Thursday afternoon. Rove reeled off voting statistics from Palm Beach County designed to counter the Democratic charges related to surprisingly high levels of support for Pat Buchanan, and Evans spelled out what he believed to be the Gore campaign's objective. "Our democratic process calls for a vote on Election Day," he said. "It does not call for us to continue voting until someone likes the outcome."