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Jewish World Review Nov. 21, 2000 / 23 Mar-Cheshvan, 5761

Roger Simon

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Election maybe a mess, but at least it's is an American original -- IT HASN'T BEEN pretty, but it sure has been American: Two enormously powerful men, vying for the most important job in the world, await the decision of ordinary citizens, who cast their ballots, hanging chads and all, in ways that have vote-counters squinting, lawyers wrangling and the whole world waiting.

Elsewhere in America, the people have spoken. In Florida, they have mumbled.

"The worm turns every couple of hours," Al Gore spokesman Chris Lehane told me. "After this week, the worm is very dizzy."

The worm is not the only one.

At the Naval Observatory in Washington Friday, Gore was sitting behind the mahogany table in the dining room of his 30-room, white-brick Victorian mansion typing out a "don't-give-up-the-ship" speech.

Always a detail man, Gore has now taken control of all speeches, all scheduling, all photo ops. Now, as he typed away on his laptop, he was trying to put the best possible spin on a near-death experience: A Florida judge had just ruled that secretary of state Katherine Harris could certify the vote in Florida -- which would mean that Bush would be well on his way to the presidency.

In Austin, Bush staffers threw their fists into the air and gave each other high fives when the decision was announced. Certification of Florida and the 25 electoral votes that went with it was all they needed.

Certainly the court battle would continue. But fighting a court battle as governor of Texas was one thing and fighting it as president-elect of the United States was another. The public relations boost would be gigantic. The Bush campaign could call the major networks, newspapers and newsmagazines and demand that their man now be referred to as "President-elect Bush." Bush could address the nation, visit members of Congress, demand briefings by the national security adviser and even receive foreign heads of state in Austin to cement his image as the inevitable next president.

But without certification, none of this was possible.

Harris was certainly willing. As co-chair of the Bush campaign in Florida and as a Bush delegate to the Republican Convention, her leanings were hardly disguisable.

And now a judge said she could go ahead with certification. But that darn worm had at least one more turn left in it. Gore staffers noticed unusual activity around the Florida Supreme Court chambers in Tallahassee and quickly passed the word along to Washington: Don't let the VPOTUS (Washington shorthand for Vice President of the United States) go on the air quite yet.

Reporters, standing in the autumn chill outside the vice presidential mansion, were waiting for Gore. Instead, they got platters of cookies and cups of coffee. Gore stayed inside watching TV and, along with the rest of America, heard the news that took him off the critical list: A clerk read a two sentence statement from the Florida Supreme Court forbidding Harris from certifying the election and ordering the manual count of ballots to continue.

In Austin, enraged staffers threw pens at the TV screen. In Washington, there were whoops of glee.

Gore turned to his laptop and typed a new statement. Typical of his steady-as-she-goes demeanor, however, it wasn't very different from his original: "The citizens of Florida surely want the candidate who received the most votes in Florida to be determined the winner of that state. That is why I am very pleased the hand counts are continuing."

Then, in the only glimmer of the emotions that were raging within him, Gore allowed himself one partisan word. "They are proceeding," he said of the hand counts, "despite efforts to obstruct them. ..."

In Tampa, attending a Republican governor's conference, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, shouted at the TV screen, "I can't stand it!" What did Gore mean "obstruct?" Just who was obstructing what?

For all the complicated legal maneuvering, the two positions are fairly simple: Bush says the election is over and he has won. Gore says the election should be ongoing, since only a manual recount of ballots in three counties can determine the true winner.

The Florida Supreme Court must rule.

But both men believe that the battle must be waged not only in the quiet dignity of the courtrooms, but amid the raucous wrangling of the media's talking heads.

Both men have seen how public opinion can help save a president -- during Bill Clinton's impeachment -- and both believe public opinion can help create a president.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate