Indecision 2000

America waits: President Bush or President Gore?

Posted: Thursday, November 16, 2000

Business, Joe Polkowski will tell you, has been brisk. Absurdly brisk.

Editor's Note: The past week has been one of the most extraordinary in American political history. Here is the tale of how it unfolded, drawn from the notebooks of Associated Press reporters across the nation.

Ask him about the attorneys streaming past his little cafe in the Palm Beach County Governmental Center to file this and oppose that. Ask him about the cellphone-wielding media hordes who ate through his pantry, from his award-winning chili to the salami-and-cheese sandwiches.

Around him swirls an imperfect storm -- one that, in a few jumbled November days, has upended not only Polkowski's corner of the world but his entire country.

We tried to choose a leader this month, as we have every four years for more than two centuries. But this time, something went awry. In a nation of 50 states, it came down to Florida. And in Florida, it came down to triple digits.

At stake is stewardship of an oval office 850 miles north of Palm Beach, and the job that goes with it: the presidency of the planet's most powerful country.

Now, while the lawyers lawyer, the posturers posture, the counters count and the judges judge, two possible presidents wait. In the middle of it all, serving up the daily special, Joe Polkowski waits, too. And so do we all.

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At 6:15 p.m. on Election Day, Wanda Tydings, fresh from work at Extra Touch Flowers in Palm Beach, strode into the Greek Orthodox church to vote. There was no line.

She'd studied the two-sided ballot the night before, chosen candidates in advance. But she hadn't looked much at the presidential part of the ballot; she didn't think she needed to.

A poll worker handed her a ballot and directed her to a high-standing desk -- the voting booth, equipped with metal sides for privacy. A puncher was attached. She picked it up and, as she'd planned, threw her vote to Al Gore. ''I didn't have my glasses on,'' she remembers.

Around the land, as America voted, the evening progressed with typical Election Night ping-pong: Texas to George W. Bush, Pennsylvania to Gore and so on. Pretty even. A few hours after most polls closed, projections showed Florida would go to Gore. It was premature, though, and news organizations backed off quickly.

As midnight passed, it became clear that Florida would be the final battleground. Its 25 electoral votes would push one candidate over the magic number 270.

Gore waited it out at the Loew's Vanderbilt Plaza in Nashville. ''White-knuckle time,'' said spokesman Mark Fabiani.

Bush holed up in the Texas governor's mansion, where his father, the former president, said this wasn't like any previous family campaigns. ''It's worse,'' said George Bush the elder.

For Gore, the Florida numbers kept growing bleaker. The networks proclaimed Bush the winner, although The Associated Press still saw the election as too close to call.

Finally, after eight years as vice president and a year on the campaign trail, Gore gave up. He called Bush and said congratulations. The Gore motorcade began its sad ride to the Nashville War Memorial, where thousands waited in the rain for a speech they never wanted to hear.

Then curious things began to happen.

Gore's people watched on the Florida state Web site as his deficit dropped from 50,000 to 900, then 500. The vice president called Bush back to retract his concession. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was certain of a Republican victory, Bush protested. "Let me explain something,'' Gore replied. ''Your younger brother is not the ultimate authority on this.''

As dawn approached, both candidates -- and their dizzied supporters -- went to bed.

In Nashville, the hotel delivered boxes of hot Krispy Kreme doughnuts to each Gore staffer's door with a premature note: ''How Sweet It Is -- Congratulations from Our Team to Yours.''

America faced an unprecedented situation: Election Day had gone into extra innings.

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By 5 a.m. Wednesday, on the 18th floor of the Florida capitol, things were getting weird.

The networks, after calling Florida first for Gore and then for Bush, had put the state back in the undecided column. One Florida statehouse correspondent e-mailed Jeb Bush for an assessment. ''What a night,'' the governor replied.

Behind the metal doors of the Division of Elections, director Clay Roberts was trying to figure out what was happening.

The margin between Bush and Gore was less than 0.5 percent -- triggering a mandatory recount.

People began to trickle in -- a couple of GOP state legislators, a lobbyist and then, in T-shirt and sweatpants, the usually well-turned-out Secretary of State Katherine Harris. An armed capitol police officer took up position in the office. Roberts began calling county election supervisors at home, alerting them to an imminent recount.

They were in uncharted territory. Still, ''We don't think this'll take days and days,'' he said.

Across the country, Americans awakened to uncertainty. ''BUSH WINS!'' shouted the early edition of the New York Post. ''As close as it gets,'' said the Chicago Tribune. Peter Jennings was still on the air, his voice husky.

''The American people have spoken,'' President Clinton said, ''but it's going to take a little while to determine exactly what they said.''

In Austin, a collegial Bush invited photographers into the dining room of the Governor's Mansion as he, Laura Bush and the Cheneys ate chilled soup for lunch. ''Here we sit,'' said Bush, who hates to wait. In Nashville, Gore stayed in bed past noon, then put in a brief appearance.

''This matter must be resolved expeditiously, but deliberately and without any rush to judgment,'' he said. Then he left, the comforting hand of Joe Lieberman on his back.

Within hours, both sides dispatched legal teams to Tallahassee, the first wave of a lawyerly mass migration. A pair of dueling former secretaries of state joined them: Warren Christopher for the Democrats, James A. Baker III for the Republicans. Each immediately accused the other side of subterfuge. It was shaping up to be a long week.

America had been down this road before -- but not since the days before telephones.

The House of Representatives elected Thomas Jefferson over Aaron Burr in 1801 when they tied in the Electoral College; John Quincy Adams also was picked by the House in 1824 even though he had far fewer votes than Andrew Jackson, because no one had an Electoral College majority. And in 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes polled 250,000 fewer votes than Samuel Tilden but won in the Electoral College, becoming the nation's 19th president -- and one of its least remembered.

With Gore-Bush, crazy scenarios began to erupt. A tie in the Electoral College? A president and vice president of different parties?

Or would one candidate bow out? But who?

Abroad, the view was a mixture of bemusement and amusement. Fidel Castro offered to send Cuban election observers. In Bangladesh, analyst M. Shahiduzzman called the American system ''pathetically flawed.''

But the system was strong, too.

On Sunday, the Rev. Jesse Jackson's supporters marched and were blocked by Bush partisans. Tensions flared and shoves were exchanged, but it ebbed quickly. Two days later, in the course of the Egyptian election, four people were killed when police fired on opposition supporters in Cairo.

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In Palm Beach, Wanda Tydings knew within hours that something was wrong. There was talk that the ballots were confusing, and -- unlike in the days of Hayes and Tilden -- news traveled fast.

Tydings saw a friend on TV saying what many voters were: that the two-sided ''butterfly ballot'' used locally may have misled Gore supporters into punching the wrong box and inadvertently voting for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan.

Tydings' friend wasn't certain she'd voted wrong. Tydings was.

And so were dozens of other voters in Palm Beach County. One after another they came forward, citing confusion. Even Buchanan said his strange abundance of votes -- 3,412 in a Gore-Lieberman stronghold -- probably were meant for the Democrats. More than 19,000 other ballots were thrown out before being counted because more than one presidential candidate was picked.

Some citizens filed suit. Others talked about it. Outside the federal courthouse, a woman stood and screamed ''Nefarious!'' over and over. Momentum and cries of foul grew: People started talking about a full recount. Or even another election.

''It was so hard to tell who and what you were voting for. I couldn't figure it out, and I have a doctorate,'' voter Eileen Klasfeld said.

The candidates, trying to rise above it all, hunkered down and let their hired hands do the talking. By Thursday, though, the mood had turned from shell-shocked to prickly. The rhetoric escalated.

''The Democrats who are politicizing and distorting these events risk doing so at the expense of our democracy,'' Bush campaign chairman Don Evans said. ''Our democratic process calls for a vote on Election Day, it does not call for us to continue voting until someone likes the outcome.''

And from Gore campaign chairman William Daley: ''We do not want delay. What we want, however, is democracy fulfilled.''

Many Americans, in polls and interviews, indicated willingness to wait for a fair outcome. ''The main thing is not to get it resolved fast, but to get it resolved correctly,'' said Jim DeSanto, 52, of Portland, Ore.

By Friday, three days after the election, it was clear that this all wasn't going away. So on Saturday, for the second time in a week, Palm Beach started recounting ballots.

In the government center on Third and Olive, where folks get boating licenses and register cars, the county got together to figure out who the next president would be.

Observers, both Republican and Democrat, were in the room when, at 2:06 p.m., the recount began. Six teams, divided by precinct, sorted the ballots into piles, one for each presidential candidate. Bush was pile No. 3, Gore No. 5. Contested ones went into a separate pile. The counters, all women, had plastic containers of Tacky Finger on hand to help them handle ballots.

The details, couched in the suddenly spreading language of ballot arcana, bogged things down immediately. They argued over each butterfly ballot's imperfections -- chad, dimpled chad, even pregnant chad. ''Never touch the chad,'' admonished Theresa LePore, Palm Beach County's beleaguered supervisor of elections. Objections flowed; if it wasn't Mark Wallace, the GOP observer, it was Democrat Ben Kuehne speaking up. When Wallace and Kuehne weren't trading jibes, they laughed with each other and made nice.

Outside, the media and the curious pressed against the window to watch. Cameras banged on the glass. Demonstrators waved Bush signs and Gore banners. Inside, a Republican observer turned to a sheriff's deputy and remarked, ''Ever felt like a fish?''

For hours that Saturday, the people in that room groused over individual ballots. Wisecracks and harsh words crackled.

Late that night, the representative of Ralph Nader's Green Party, Medea Benjamin, arrived late from California. ''This is the most extraordinary thing I have ever seen,'' she said. ''The fate of the most developed country in the world divided into 16 stacks.''

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Back at the ranch, George W. Bush was still waiting. On Saturday afternoon, he strode from his house in faded jeans, flanked by his dog Spot and, in a suit, Dick Cheney.

As Bush spoke, he threw a ball for Spotty to catch and said he'd repaired to the ranch to ''contemplate a potential administration.''

In Washington that evening, Al and Tipper Gore dressed down and embarked upon a double date with the Liebermans to the movies. They waved to theatergoers, passed popcorn, shared sodas and watched the Navy drama ''Men of Honor.'' Its theme: Never give up.

On Sunday, Bush didn't appear. Gore went to church. The pastor didn't mention the presidency. Elsewhere, it was the only thing anybody talked about.

In Iowa, Gore's lead slipped to little more than 4,000 votes; a recount was possible. In Wisconsin, his lead was just over 6,000 votes, and Republicans claimed irregularities. In New Mexico, vote totals bounced like the NASDAQ -- there were computer glitches, clerical errors, ballots found locked in supply boxes.

''They're calling me incompetent,'' said Judy Woodward, Bernalillo County clerk. ''I'm glad I'm not in Florida.''

There, Republicans filed suit to stop hand recounts. The Democrats filed suit to force Harris -- the secretary of state, the co-chairman of the Bush campaign in Florida -- to accept recounted totals beyond a 5 p.m. Tuesday deadline. Judges ruled, parties appealed, judges ruled again.

The hand recounts went on. In Volusia County -- known for Daytona Beach and spring break -- the parties debated over pens observers would use, so there would be no chance that any markings would be confused with the black markers used by voters. The Democrats had brought green pens; the Republicans were rescued by sheriff's deputies, who raided a supply closet to secure three boxes of red pens.

The 24-hour news channels showed it all, and Wanda Tydings couldn't stop watching. She recalled seeing one development, heralded by yet another CNN bulletin.

''It's breaking news!'' she exclaimed.

''It's 'breaking news' all the time,'' rejoined her boyfriend, Patrick Robertson.

The U.S. Postal Service rushed to deliver overseas absentee ballots. Some observers predicted many would be from Israel, testing Lieberman's effect on the Gore ticket. Others said they could be largely military, which could help Bush.

On Tuesday, a week after the vote, Florida certified its vote totals. For the moment, Bush had 2,910,492 votes, Gore had 2,910,192.

Three hundred votes, and still they go on counting.

It has been, as President Clinton put it dryly while talking to world leaders in Brunei on Wednesday, ''a rather interesting week.'' But of course it's far more. The Making of the President 2000 has proven riveting political drama, brimming with passion, epic sweep and the highest of stakes.

''When is it going to end?'' James Baker asked Tuesday.

No one knows. It just goes on. Wanda Tydings stays glued to the TV. Joe Polkowski, owner of the cafe at ground zero, has given away the signs that demonstrators left behind; he's making more chili. The lawyers are in court, and America waits for an answer: President Bush, or President Gore?

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