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Where we are going there are no maps and no guardrails. These two men have choices to make. Both talked about the will of the people and the rule of law, of bringing the country together. But as the hours and days passed, the temperature began to rise, and so did the stakes.
In public, the Bush position was essentially this: "We've won. Gore lost. And while we're willing to have one recount because the public believes in fairness, don't expect us to go along with this forever." It's no accident that James Baker, former Secretary of State and best friend of former President Bush, was named to take charge of this battle. He is extremely experienced at sending layers of signals simultaneously, and so he sent different messages to the Democrats and to the nation.
To the American people he said, We're one of the great nations on earth that transfers power peacefully. That meant Gore is taking a crowbar to that tradition; how much damage are people willing to tolerate? Baker said he was prepared to wait for the absentee ballots, all due by this Friday, but drew a line at the prospect of a third count, by hand this time, of the Florida ballots.
That is because those ballots frighten the Bush camp. On the confusing "punch card" ballots, some voters did not punch through the hole, leaving a little paper flap hanging. A machine may not recognize this punch as a vote, but a human being might, which is what the Democrats are hoping. They could pick up a thousand or two votes this way; the first recount may have already given them an extra 1,457. On Saturday, Baker announced that the Bush campaign had gone to federal court to block any manual recount.
But Baker's coded message to the Democrats on Friday was already a threat. "If we keep going down the path we're on," he warned, "then we just can't sit on our hands, and we will be forced to do what might be in our best personal interest but not in the best interest of our wonderful country." In other words, if Gore pushes Florida too hard, Bush will demand recounts in Iowa, Wisconsin, New Mexico and Oregon. If Gore gains Florida but loses a combination of three of those states, the Electoral College vote will end in a deadlock, 269 to 269, and the race will tumble into the House of Representatives, which the Republicans, by a piece of tissue, control.
And top Republicans told TIME that, if necessary, Baker has every intention of going after Gore's Achilles' heel in California: the 1 million absentee ballots. Bush would not win enough to take back the state. But Republicans estimate that there are 600,000 Bush votes in boxes in California somewhere, and those could be enough to reverse Gore's popular-vote victory.
The Bush strategy was to take away what it considers Gore's only moral leverage. And so Baker was really offering Gore an exit strategy: depart the field now as the clear popular-vote winner, and live to fight another day--in 2004, Gore will be only 57--or take your chances, face a popular-vote recount elsewhere, and risk losing that imprimatur as party leader, heroic victim, Mr. Popularity. Bush's people were betting Gore would take this sooner or later. But the offer may not last long. "If they want to play hardball, fine," said a Bush aide. "We're prepared."