WASHINGTON -- The public face of the White House battle has changed -- from dimpled ballots and tense recounts to legions of lawyers and dozens of lawsuits. Just as the nation's patience is wearing thin, the case is in the hands of a profession that America loves to hate.
Enter the lawyers, practically all of them white men, overseeing lawsuits and briefs stretching from Florida state courts to the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington. Some are veterans of the country's flashiest legal battles, from O.J. Simpson and boat boy Elian Gonzalez to software giant Microsoft.
''Now we see what corporations buy for $1,000 an hour,'' said Brookings Institution presidential scholar Stephen Hess. ''It's sort of interesting. If you're in trouble you better get a good lawyer. It makes a difference.''
James A. Baker III, political and legal adviser for George W. Bush, held a news conference Tuesday to introduce five more attorneys who will lead the Republican litigation team in Florida. ''We've got quite a bit of accumulated years of trial experience behind me here,'' Baker boasted, as if to scare the opposition.
Not likely. Al Gore's legal team includes David Boies, the rumpled lawyer who won the government's antitrust case against Microsoft, and Laurence Tribe, the Harvard law professor who wrote the book, literally, on constitutional law.
On Sunday, when Florida certified Bush the winner over Gore, Baker expressed the country's longing for closure and said, ''At some point the law must prevail and the lawyers must go home.'' Clearly, that day has not arrived.
Stanley Renshon, a political psychologist, said Baker was trying to make a political point by emphasizing the legal firepower taking center stage.
''Americans don't particularly like lawyers because they feel that when lawyers get involved, principles go out the window,'' said Renshon, a professor at City University of New York Graduate Center. ''So Baker was very careful in his casting of this to call attention to the lawyers involved and the fact that they were being defensive'' -- willing to back off if Gore would drop his case.
''So he's playing to Americans' dislike of lawyers,'' Renshon said.
There are dozens of lawyers -- more than 70 alone on Gore's side by one count -- on a legal battleground littered with more than two dozen lawsuits. Baker, the secretary of state in the Bush administration, leads the Republican team, while Warren Christopher, the first secretary of state in the Clinton administration, leads the Democrats.
The presidential drama in Florida has been full of lawyers from the start as teams of legal and political operatives swarmed into the state. The legal ranks have expanded steadily ever since.
The showdown reaches a pinnacle Friday when Bush and Gore lawyers stand before the U.S. Supreme Court to argue Bush's case against recounts. ''If the lawyers have their way they'll take every opinion they can to the Supreme Court,'' said former Clinton White House chief of staff Leon Panetta. ''But I think a candidate has to exercise some common sense here as to what's in the national interest.''
Gore will be represented before the high court by Tribe, who has argued 29 cases before the court. Bush will be represented by Theodore Olson, who has argued 13 cases before the court.
Tribe is a liberal activist often mentioned as a potential nominee to the Supreme Court under a Democratic administration. Olson is a Republican who is a close friend and frequent defender of former Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr.
Other players in various Florida legal challenges include Harvard professor and former Simpson lawyer Alan Dershowitz and former Southern Florida U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey, who fought to keep Gonzalez with his Miami relatives.
''I do think we're ambivalent about lawyers,'' said Hess, the Brookings scholar. ''Lawyers represent contention but we want them on our side at the same time. We're in trouble -- who do you call?''
Terry Hunt has covered the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations for The Associated Press.
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