WASHINGTON -- William M. Daley, the astute chairman of Al Gore's presidential campaign, markedly softened his tone Friday. No longer was this lifelong veteran of Chicago's political wars threatening legal action. Rather, he was staking all on the belief that even after losing two statewide Florida counts of the presidential election, Vice President Gore finally could be counted in for the president.
That is much more frightening for Republicans than bluster about going to court. The heart of the Gore strategy is not in Palm Beach County, where the much-publicized complaint about the ballot format is not taken that seriously by key Gore advisers. They doubted much success for overheated claims by the Rev. Jesse Jackson about violation of voting rights because senior citizens claimed not to understand the ballot that hardly seems that complicated.
Rather, heavily Democratic Broward County (Fort Lauderdale) last week soon became the focus for turning apparent defeat into glorious victory. Thousands of Broward voters, presumably Democratic senior citizens, did not apply enough pressure on the punch card to record the vote.
Broward is one of the four counties where a hand count has been requested by Gore, not merely to check accuracy of the two previous mechanical tallies, but to validate ballots that previously were called spoiled. In effect, Broward's all-Democratic reviewing committee would determine that these voters had meant to vote for the vice president but had been unable to do so. Vote canvassers openly talked about divining
the intent of voters.
Bush lawyers contemplated going into federal court to try to block this remarkable process. But a legal stalemate could prevent Florida from selecting 25 electors in time for the convening of the Electoral College on Dec. 18. In that event, Gore would be elected president by a majority of the electors present. That is another way Broward County could determine who is the next president of the United States.
During the first 48 hours after the election, when it appeared the Florida recount surely would go Gov. Bush's way, Democratic rhetoric was harsh. "This isn't about some numbers game or just simply counting up the ballots," Gore senior adviser Ron Klain said Thursday. "Technicalities should not determine the presidency of the United States," added Daley the same day in a press conference from Florida that sent stock prices tumbling.
Daley's rhetoric also alarmed prominent Democrats, who want Gore elected but fear a protracted, possibly losing legal struggle that even now is proliferating. Bush operatives threaten hand-counts in Florida's big Republican counties. Now that Democrats are moving to challenge Bush's slim win in New Hampshire, Republicans may counter a small Gore edge in Wisconsin and an even tinier margin in New Mexico.
Veteran Democratic activist Lanny Davis, a friend and fervent supporter of both Bill Clinton and Al Gore, wants "to be sure" who won Florida and the presidency and to "take time" to get it right. What he next said to me echoed what other Democrats have been telling me off the record ever since the election. "We also have to be careful," said Davis, arguing that stretching out the process is "a very dangerous course" with "long-term historical consequences for the Democratic Party."
One prominent adviser to Gore who asked not to be quoted agreed in substance with Davis, but added it all will be over by Friday of this week. He added that Gore now must engage in a public relations war with Bush to convince Americans that he does not favor disruption of the political system. That newly conciliatory tone, however, is born not of presumptive concession to defeat but from belief that victory is at hand.
The plan to detect enough intended votes in Broward County to send Al Gore to the Oval Office makes moot all the recent talk about the vice president belatedly following the precedent of 1960. In that year, Richard M. Nixon preserved his political future by declining to pursue charges of Democratic vote-stealing, most famously against Chicago's Mayor Richard J. Daley.
Gore loyalists have been hoping he would follow Nixon's example in order to preserve himself for another try in 2004. His hard-nosed team intends to make self-sacrifice unnecessary.