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The 911 call from Austin had to be especially sweet for Baker, whose relations with the Bush family have been correct but cool ever since Bush senior lost his reelection bid in 1992, a campaign Baker commanded for only the final three months. Baker's extraordinarily close friendship with the former President did not suffer after the 1992 defeat. But Barbara Bush never quite got over it, and some of her frostiness was inherited by the one Bush son whose instincts most resemble his redoubtable mom's: George W. The Governor and Rove publicly purged nearly all the old Bush and Baker hands from the Governor's campaign team. By 1998, being a "former Baker aide" was worse than being a liberal, and many who had once toiled for Baker had to work under deep cover. Baker kept his distance from Austin; he didn't need or want any part of it anyway. Relations are better now, but not yet back to normal. Baker and the former President had a quiet dinner two Sundays ago in Houston--without their wives, a sign that the grudge between Baker and Barbara may not be patched up, in the view of some old Bush hands.
Baker has faced far tougher moments in his career--thousands of lives were riding on his 11th-hour war-or-peace meeting in Geneva with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz in January 1991, for example--but few have been as tailor-made for Baker, whose unique skill is the ability to integrate policy and politics in one brain and make a lot of things happen quickly. Baker arrived in Tallahassee the morning after the election and was joined by two longtime aides, Margaret Tutwiler and Robert Zoellick, a plug-in rescue squad that had seen action in such events as the 1987 stock-market crash, the fall of the Soviet bloc and the Gulf War. Within 48 hours of the election, aides told TIME, Baker instructed his team to be ready to take the recount issue all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. He asked Zoellick to find out what the state legislature could do if the hand recount went Gore's way and Bush needed to take the fight to the House of Representatives. Then Baker did something else. He told Bush and Cheney to settle in for a long siege. "It's going to be a very, very bumpy road, and you are just going to have to stay the course," was how two officials recalled the conversation.
By then, Baker had set up shop in a cramped corner office in the Florida Republican Party's headquarters and put Zoellick and Tutwiler within shouting range. Baker brought in an army of election lawyers from Washington, who went to work in a large conference room nearby, sharing a giant table as a desk and sitting on folding chairs. For a while, legal counsel Ted Olson just sat on the floor. From Austin, Baker brought in logistical expert Joe Allbaugh, who ordered catered meals three times a day, arranged for local Republicans to fluff and fold everyone's laundry and scrounged corporate jets to fly the principals home on Thanksgiving.
A practicing lawyer for more than 20 years, Baker read the 42-page decision by the Florida Supreme Court after 11 on Tuesday night, personally checked the case cited by David Boies as authority for counting dimpled chads and called a press conference to claim that Boies and the court had misread the case. Baker then threw another grenade into the Gore camp: "I would not be surprised to see the legislature perhaps take some action to get back to the original statutory provisions."