- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 9, 2000

If an aspiring screenwriter concocted such a shaky plot for a fictional national election, studio executives in Hollywood might have laughed out loud.

Famed director and Tinseltown liberal Rob Reiner acknowledged as much on national television early yesterday morning, as he prepared in a chilly drizzle to celebrate with hundreds of loyal Democrats gathered in downtown Nashville, Tenn., for what was supposed to be a Gore-Lieberman victory bash.

But in an ongoing drama that remains a cliffhanger two days after the national vote, real life is indeed stranger than fiction as the presidency hangs in the balance.

The scenario begins like this:

At 7:57 p.m. CNN time, the cable network tosses the night's first curve ball, declaring that Democrat Al Gore had taken Florida and its 25 coveted electoral votes. It comes at a key time for viewership with the eyes of the nation glued to televisions as the polls closed or neared closing on the East Coast and in parts of the Midwest.

The early news is momentarily dejecting for the nearly 3,000 faithful gathered at a Republican National Committee party in Washington.

But the brief gloom is replaced by a snippet of hope at 9:54 when CNN's political team is forced to take back the announcement of a Gore victory in Florida instead erasing the 25 electoral votes from the vice president's column.

At 9:59 p.m., the Associated Press files an advisory that the vote count for Mr. Gore in Florida is in question. Six minutes later, Republican George W. Bush refuses to concede Florida or Pennsylvania, telling reporters, "I feel fine."

At about the same time, the television networks announce that Mr. Gore has won in California. Ten minutes later, adding to the suspense, Mr. Bush ekes out victories in Arizona, Nevada and Arkansas, a sweet win in President Clinton's home state.

Things swam along until a little after 2 a.m., when the other shoe dropped.

ABC, NBC and CBS all call Florida for Mr. Bush, giving him enough electoral votes to win the White House. Fox News Channel makes its announcement at 2:16 a.m., projecting Florida in the Bush column as well.

At 2:18 p.m., CNN also names Mr. Bush as the nation's next president. "Bush wins," the screen porclaimed.

Web sites and newspapers hastily publish late-edition headlines that, at least at the time, are every bit as wrong as the fabled "Dewey Defeats Truman."

By then, however, the Gore camp is taking in what seems like a loss.

Mr. Gore, who watched the election returns with his wife, Tipper, at the Loews Vanderbilt Hotel, had called Mr. Bush between 2:30 and 2:45 a.m. Eastern time to concede the election.

"The media was reporting that he was losing the election [in Florida] by 50,000 votes," Gore spokesman Doug Hattaway recalled at a briefing hours later.

After calling Mr. Bush, the vice president left red-eyed, downcast staffers and boarded his limousine at the hotel.

Shortly before 2 a.m., Mr. Gore's motorcade was about two blocks from War Memorial Plaza when Michael Whouley, the Gore campaign's field director, paged Michael Feldman, the traveling chief of staff.

Mr. Whouley, following Florida's election returns on the Internet, alerted Mr. Feldman that only 6,000 votes now separated Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore in Florida and a significant number of votes remained outstanding.

Mr. Feldman, riding in a staff van, grabbed his cell phone and called Gore campaign chairman William M. Daley, who was riding in another van carrying staff members, to let him know there was cause for optimism. In the nail-biting minutes thereafter, Mr. Gore learned that fewer than 1,000 votes separated him from Mr. Bush.

In a steady rain, the motorcade reached the War Memorial, a tall white building with pillars that overlooks a plaza. Mr. Daley huddled with the vice president in a holding room backstage.

At 3:15 Eastern time, Mr. Daley called Bush campaign chairman Don Evans to inform him about the Gore campaign's deliberations.

Between 3:30 and 3:45, the vice president called Mr. Bush again to recant his concession.

Then the acid of a yearlong fight eked out as Mr. Gore insisted that Florida's decisive 25 electoral votes remained in limbo.

"Let me make sure I understand," protested Mr. Bush, his victory speech in hand. "You're calling me back to retract your concession?"

"You don't have to be snippy about it," Mr. Gore is said to have retorted.

At about that time, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush had just assured his brother that Florida was a done deal. And the TV networks had already declared Texas Gov. George W. Bush the 43rd president of the United States.

But, "Let me explain something," Mr. Gore lectured Mr. Bush in a stony tone, "your younger brother is not the ultimate authority on this."

The conversation, quoted to the Associated Press by a person in the room with Mr. Gore and confirmed by a Bush aide, ended abruptly.

The vice president then left the War Memorial to return to the Loews Hotel.

As the drama unfolded backstage, Gore supporters had been standing in the plaza in a misting rain, awaiting a concession speech from Mr. Gore. Members of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman's staff and campaign volunteers milled about, looking vacant and shell-shocked.

Soon, television screens in the plaza turned to network broadcasts that indicated Florida was back in play.

The crowd cheered and offered chants such as: "Stay and fight," "Recount," and "Fuzzy math." They were still in the race.

On the Bush side, eager supporters, feeling certain of victory, had thronged into downtown Austin, Texas, where a massive victory rally was planned.

There, shortly before 3 a.m., a similar situation emerged with a Bush campaign adviser walking grimly to the stage to deliver a brief statement that Florida remained up for grabs and a celebration would be premature.

At about 4 a.m., Mr. Daley, the Gore campaign chairman, bounded onto the floodlit stage in Nashville in the spitting rain.

"I have some news to share with you tonight," Mr. Daley told the crowd. "And let me say: I've been in politics for a long time. But there's never been a night like this one.

"Just an hour or so ago, the TV networks called this race for Governor Bush. It now appears that their call was premature," he said.

Mr. Daley thanked the crowd and headed back to the Loews, where Mr. Gore met with top aides until 4:45 a.m.

Gore supporters visibly brightened as they left the plaza in the rain, chanting slogans such as "Keep the faith."

By now, newspaper editors, dazed by the back-and-forth, had been scrambling to stop the presses. At the same time, ambitious memorabilia collectors stalked the news racks for unfetched copies that one day might become valuable.

By last night, those premature copies declaring Mr. Bush the winner were selling for as much as $1,000 on Internet auction sites.

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