Marjorie Strayer insisted she was just a Virginian on vacation in Miami. She had come to the downtown Stephen P. Clark Government Center to watch the Dade County vote recount--something to do before the trip to the Seaquarium. But Strayer, it turns out, is a top aide to New Mexico's Republican Congresswoman, Heather Wilson, and was one of hundreds of paid G.O.P. crusaders who descended on South Florida last Wednesday to protest the state's recounts. "The system is unfair, inaccurate, fraught with human error!" Strayer cried. In a Winnebago outside, G.O.P. operatives orchestrated the ranks up to the 19th floor, hoping to halt the tally of the largest potential lode of Gore votes.
Republicans, not usually known for takin' it to the streets, got what they wanted. Just two hours after a near riot outside the counting room, the Miami-Dade canvassing board voted to shut down the count. Yet the way the Republicans went after it, by intimidating the three-member board or by providing the excuse it was looking for, gave Americans the first TV view of strong-arm tactics in what was supposed to be a showcase of democracy in action. If Jesse Jackson can do it, the Republicans argued, so can we. But the G.O.P.'s march turned into a mob. The screaming, the pounding on doors and the alleged physical assaults on Democrats suddenly made a bemused public queasy. "I'm all for anyone's right to protest," says Miami-Dade Democratic chairman Joe Geller, who had to have a police escort. "These were Brownshirt tactics."
It was the Dade vote counters, however, who provoked the Republican machine. Seemingly oblivious to G.O.P. anger over the Florida Supreme Court ruling to allow manual recounts, the canvassing board tried an end run around the court's Sunday deadline by deciding to recount only some 11,000 of Dade's 654,000 ballots. Those disputed ballots, most of which did not register presidential votes in the machines, were thought to favor Gore. Worse, the board moved into a smaller room that cut off public observation. "They denied our legal rights," says Paul Crespo, an ex-Marine and coordinator of a group called Young Professionals for Bush. "We cried foul." In fact, the Republicans, who justifiably delight in throwing 1960s chants back at Democrats, began shouting, "The whole world is watching!"
What the world watched was a G.O.P. melee. When Geller walked out of the room with a sample ballot, the crowd accused him of stealing a real one and responded as if he had just nabbed a baby for its organs. Geller says he was pushed by two dozen protesters screaming, "I'm gonna take you down!" Luis Rosero, a Democratic observer, claims he was punched and kicked. Republicans dispute the charges, but video cameras caught scenes of activism that had morphed into menace. The organizers in the RV outside, who G.O.P. protesters have told TIME were led by hardball Washington strategist Roger Stone, had phone banks churning out calls to Miami Republicans, urging them to storm downtown. (Stone could not be reached for comment.) One of them was a fire fighter, Rob Eltus, 45: "What Americans are finally seeing is Republicans fed up."