WASHINGTON -- Old Republican hands Bob Dole and John Engler thought they had seen it all in politics, but that was before they watched votes being "counted" in south Florida. They were stunned ("radicalized, " said one GOP operative) as Bush campaign observers experiencing a Democratic recount. Audacious though the Gore tactics were, however, the results have fallen short of expectations.
Since the morning after the election, Al Gore's managers have planned to elect a president by milking votes out of three heavily Democratic counties in Florida. Although former Sen. Dole and Michigan Gov. Engler were stunned by the transformation of voided ballots into votes for Gore, the count by late Saturday was not up to what Democrats had hoped.
The Republicans, after a very slow start following the election, have toughened up. George W. Bush's campaign forced a fierce struggle, haggling over ballots by the dozens rather than the hundreds. Instead of Gore clinching the presidency within three weeks of election day as envisioned, nothing is certain.
The dispatching of Dole, Engler and a squad of other Republican governors to south Florida illuminated the vote-counting procedures in Broward and Palm Beach counties. As a totem of the GOP and the party's 1996 presidential candidate, Dole can always attract national attention, and he did so when he said he saw "votes being cast, not counted."
Engler told me the same thing -- with elaboration. In Broward, he said, "not one disputed ballot did I see that could be counted in Michigan. Not one. You really have to see it to believe it." The surreal quality for Engler stemmed from Suzanne Gunzburger, the fervent Democrat on the three-member Broward canvassing board; she gave Gore each and every questionable ballot. The result was 583 votes picked in the county, eating up more than half of Bush's statewide lead.
Their behavior was no aberration but in fact was the extension of the carefully plotted Democratic recount strategy. It is no accident that Democrats always seem to win contested elections, such as Sen. Mary Landrieu's notorious Louisiana victory of 1996. They have the blueprint and the experts, and they were mobilized for Gore even before anybody knew the 2000 election would be a dead heat.
"The Gore campaign didn't just send people to Florida fast," Ryan Lizza writes in an excellent article in the Nov. 27 New Republic. "It sent the party's top recount experts." That included recount ace Chris Sautter, who was one of many experts on call election night. As long ago as 1984, Sautter ran the recount campaign that unseated an Indiana Republican Congressional candidate already certified by the secretary of state -- an outrageous power play that permanently poisoned the atmosphere of the House of Representatives.
Lizza reports that Sautter spent election night ready in Washington. He received the call at 4 a.m. Wednesday and was told to take the 7:30 a.m. flight to Tallahassee. This crafty operative has been hard at work in Florida ever since, training party workers and seeking voter complaints.
The Bush campaign was totally unprepared for this conflict, spreading anger and defeatism in GOP ranks. "It's like the Polish cavalry against the Nazi tanks," said one senior Republican last week. Belatedly, the Republicans mobilized. Republican pressure contributed to tougher voting standards in Palm Beach County. The decision by Miami-Dade County to halt its count may or may not have been influenced by a noisy though non-violent demonstration, but that activity did not hurt.
Nor did Chris Sautter's handbook take into consideration the possibility that the U.S. Supreme Court might spoil the Democratic game, threatening to overrule the politicized and liberal Florida Supreme Court. Super-lawyer David Boies, representing the Gore campaign, did not imagine it either.
This is no mere Senate election in Louisiana or House race in Indiana, and the recounting that "radicalized" Dole and Engler will not suffice. Vice President Gore has signaled he will do whatever it takes to achieve office, contesting administrative and court decisions. George Mitchell, one of the best and certainly the most partisan Senate leader that I have seen in 43 years of Congress-watching, was sent to Florida last week to add his considerable bulk. Clearly, creative vote-counting won't be enough.