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Chapter Five: A wild election night

Sunday, December 17, 2000

By Ann McFeatters , Post-Gazette National Bureau

Election Day for Al Gore took him to just outside Carthage, Tenn.

The vice president had not slept for 30 hours, after a blitz of campaigning from Iowa to Michigan to Missouri to Florida. He whipped in and out of a curtained voting booth in a school gymnasium in just a few seconds, so fast it was hard to believe he actually took time to vote.

The Longest Night / The TV networks called Florida early for Gore. Then Florida was a tossup. Then Bush won Florida -- and the presidency! Then Bush lost Florida, too. By dawn, Florida was stuck back in the undecided column -- where it stayed for another 36 days. (Eric Draper, Associated Press)

Then he spent a few awkward moments talking with a group of shy, somewhat bewildered elementary school students. As TV cameras whirred, Gore asked one youngster who he would vote for if he could, and was told, "My friend." Not the answer the vice president was seeking.

Gore moved on to rainy Nashville, to a suite in the Loews Vanderbilt Plaza Hotel, where he busily worked the phones for hours, at one point calling Jesse Jackson to ask him to race to Philadelphia for a final round of getting out black voters. Photographs showed Gore wearing a jacket and tie.

In Austin, Texas, George W. Bush woke in the governor's mansion at 6:30 a.m., relishing being at home. He put on an open-collared, blue, buttoned shirt, dark slacks and Texas cowboy boots, and went downstairs to feed the dog and two cats and to make coffee.

Sitting in the green-and-gold living room, he said he had slept poorly because he was "pretty wound up." But in the light of day, he said he felt "calm" because there was not much more for him to do. "We poured our hearts and souls into this campaign," he said.

Bush made some calls to voters around the country, urging Tina Garehart, a stay-at-home mother in Detroit, to vote for him, and advising her 14-year-old son Phil to listen to his mother "because I'm still listening to mine."

At 10:30 a.m., he and his wife, Laura, who was clearly nervous as she clutched her stomach, went to the Travis County Courthouse in a sport utility vehicle. Unlike Gore, Bush pored over his yellow paper ballot for several minutes before eventually slipping it into a ballot box.

Polls began closing at 6 p.m. on the East Coast. The network anchors began settling in with their electronic charts and exit polling data, many convinced they'd be wrapping up by 11 p.m. as usual.

  Electoral vote map - The final tally


But tension had been building all day in Nashville and Austin. Exit polls were showing that Bush had lost his momentum, especially in such key states as Pennsylvania and Michigan, where union members had been given the day off to vote. To Bush's disappointment, both states went for Gore.

But even as Bush's anxiety was growing, Gore headquarters had worries of its own. His staffers were concluding that the election was going to be much, much closer than even their own internal polls had indicated. And there was a worrisome trickle of calls from heavily Democratic Palm Beach County in Florida that the punch-card ballot there was confusing, with the second hole being a vote for Pat Buchanan, not Al Gore.

At 7:48 p.m., the networks received word from the data firm they all used to conduct exit polls, the Voter News Service, that enough counties in Florida had gone Democratic that it felt confident calling the state for Gore. Although voters in Florida's Panhandle were still voting, and despite their voluntary agreement never to declare a winner before a state had finished voting, the networks broadcast the bulletin.

TV crews stationed outside the Austin restaurant where the Bush family had gathered, ostensibly to celebrate, showed the governor suddenly leaving, deciding to go back to the mansion. There, Bush's twin daughters, Barbara and Jenna, were crying. Bush himself said he didn't believe he lost Florida.

Frantic Bush campaign aides in California were calling, worried that would-be voters, leaving work and hearing on their car radios that Florida had gone for Gore, would go home without voting.

The pendulum would soon swing back to smite the Gore camp.

Just before 10 p.m., the networks reversed their announcement that Gore had taken Florida, saying the state now was too close to call.

By then, it was clear Gore had lost his home state of Tennessee, a devastating blow. If he had won Tennessee, Gore later realized, he would have won the White House, no matter what happened in Florida.

At the TV networks, producers were putting in desperate calls to the Voter News Service. Was it true that some of the exit poll data from Tampa and Jacksonville were flawed? Yes, said anguished VNS officials, it was true.

Gore was ahead in the popular vote across the nation, but both men had 242 electoral votes. Florida, astonished observers were now saying, would decide the election.

The amazing, see-saw night held more surprises. Shortly after 2 a.m. the networks decided it was safe to call Florida for Bush, meaning that he had, most likely, won the presidency by several thousand votes in just one state.

Crumpling in relief, the Bush family began hugging and slapping each other on the back, none happier than the candidate's brother Jeb, the Florida governor, who feared he'd be the family pariah if he didn't deliver his own state.

At the Loews Hotel, surrounded by his sobbing daughters, Gore amazed his exhausted staff with his stoic calm and began talking about conceding, even as his wife urged him to wait. But a depleted Gore, who'd had no sleep for almost two days, seemed to want to get the ordeal out of the way.

Without waiting for official results, less than a quarter hour after the networks called Florida for Bush, Gore phoned Bush and congratulated him. Bush jubilantly began preparing to make his victory speech to supporters at the Four Seasons Hotel.

Gore and his wife Tipper got into his motorcade to drive to the war memorial in Nashville, where he had announced his presidential candidacy. But as his limousine arrived, frantic aides signaled him to stop.

As those still awake sat before their TVs wondering what was delaying the speeches so they could go to bed, the networks began hedging. About 3:30 a.m., one by one, they began to say maybe Bush hadn't won Florida -- that the state, again, was too close to call.

About 3:45 a.m., Gore phoned Bush a second time, saying the situation had changed, that Florida might well have a recount and that he was retracting his concession. Unbelieving, Bush snapped at his rival. Gore admonished Bush not to be "snippy."

The stunned Bush family didn't know what to do and sat staring at each other in disbelief. The candidate's upset mother, Barbara Bush, would later tell a friend: "I was the mother of a president for 30 minutes, and I loved it."

The nation's newspapers were in a paroxysm of indecision. Headlines ranged from "It's Bush!" to "Too Close to Call" to "Cliffhanger."

But it was the TV networks who came in for the most criticism because of the back-and-forth calls for Florida. Polls taken a few days later found that as many as 79 percent of Americans said the media had acted "irresponsibly" election night. As NBC anchor Tom Brokaw put it, "We don't just have egg on our face. We have omelet all over our suits."

Gore had clearly won more popular votes nationwide than Bush and had collected 267 of the 270 electoral votes needed for victory, compared with 246 for Bush. But with Florida's 25 electors leaning to Bush because of what turned out to be only a few hundred votes, Bush felt he had won, despite the looming recounts.

Historically, emotionally, dramatically, the nation had never experienced anything quite like Election Night 2000.

Rob Reiner, the Hollywood movie producer who had campaigned for Gore, was incredulous. "I couldn't write a script like this; they'd drum me out of the Screenwriters Guild."

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