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Election mania has everyone talking, waiting

By CRAIG PITTMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 9, 2000


For months Sylvia Hill did her best to stoke her grandchildren's interest in this year's presidential election. So when they woke up Wednesday morning, they eagerly asked her who won.

The 52-year-old St. Petersburg resident had to confess that, although the polls had been closed for hours, nobody knew yet who the next leader of the free world would be.

"That's dumb!" said 8-year-old Alexis McGill. Her grandmother laughed and agreed.

At breakfast tables and bus stops, in barbershops and break rooms across the Tampa Bay area and throughout America, the buzz wasn't about Madonna's baby or Oprah's book club or Garth Brooks' divorce. It was the presidential election and its down-to-the-wire, up-in-the-air, too-close-to-call photo finish.

"I'm 92 years old, and I've taken part in a lot of elections, but this is the most exciting that I've seen," said Brooksville banker Alfred McKethan.

Bleary-eyed workers dragged in to their jobs still chattering about the seesaw battle between Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore, and Florida's crucial role in picking the winner.

"I stayed up watching it until 1 a.m.," said St. Petersburg lawn care employee Jeff Hinrichs, 33. "I was up so late it reminded me of Monday Night Football. You know, you got to go to bed but you don't want to quit watching."

The disputed outcome turned the whole country into one big civics class. People debated the merits of the Electoral College with the sort of passion usually reserved for discussing the pros and cons of instant replay in the NFL.

"A lot of people are kind of hoping this will get rid of the Electoral College," said Kim Bregman, 32, the manager of Buon Giorno, a downtown St. Petersburg eatery where the election was Topic A for her customers. "It's pretty silly that we can't just have the popular election be the one that counts."

"I believe in the popular vote, if you want to know the truth about it," agreed Bush supporter Terry Tauff, 59, a construction contractor busy discussing the election with an employee at Fortunato's Pizza in St. Petersburg. "The hell with the Electoral College."

The chance of having the first election in more than a century in which the electoral vote and the popular vote do not agree enraged some people and excited others. University of South Florida education major Ryan Shaw, 28, figured this race is one for the books.

"I'll have to teach this maybe," Shaw said. "I can say, "I voted for Gore.' " The he grinned and added, "Although 20 years from now, I might say I voted for Bush."

Some people spent Wednesday looking for souvenirs of the historic event. Carolyn Miller of St. Petersburg bought 12 newspapers so her grandchildren would have two copies each of all the front pages that came out as the vote tally swayed back and forth.

Others spent the day looking for someone to blame. Talk radio callers were howling at WMNF-FM that Green Party candidate Ralph Nader siphoned off 10,000 votes from Gore in Pinellas County and 7,000 in Hillsborough. Some blamed the left-leaning station for costing Gore the entire election by giving Nader plenty of air time.

WMNF's board chairman, Tampa lawyer Lou Putney, voted for Nader. He said he was having plenty of what he diplomatically called "discussions" with his Democratic friends Wednesday. But he insisted he had no regrets.

"I was voting for my daughter's future, so there would be some alternative available for her in eight years when she votes for president the first time," he said.

In local Internet chat rooms, conspiracy theorists were grumbling that the Bush brothers had somehow conspired to pull a fast one in Florida, or that the U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno was plotting some nefarious maneuver to throw the election Gore's way.

A few people blamed themselves for what happened. Willie Brown, 31, of Spring Hill never got around to voting Tuesday because he was having a hectic day at work.

"I regret not voting now because we need Gore," Brown said. "There's nothing I can do now but sit back and wait."

In the parking lot at Largo Central Park, where dozens of parents who home school their children meet every Wednesday, Rebecca Fanning, 43, was worried the controversy over the Florida vote would make the state look bad.

"It embarrasses us," said Fanning, a Gore supporter, before bursting out into laughter.

But the uproar had some positive effects. Usually, the ninth-graders in Deborah Pettingill's American government class at Largo High School are barely awake when class starts at 7:20 a.m. But on Wednesday, they were burning with questions: Why don't we know who won? How could a candidate win the popular vote and not win the race? What could have happened to some of the ballots?

Although she had planned a lesson on the American Revolution, Pettingill switched gears and spent most of class explaining how the Electoral College works. She said the controversy sparked serious interest among young people who in the past have not cared about politics -- even though they could help decide the next presidential race in 2004.

"They made a point of telling me they are very interested in the process and they will be ready to vote the next time," Pettingill said. "Usually they don't think that far ahead."

-- Times staff writers Kent Fischer, Linda Gibson, Christina Headrick, Robert King, William R. Levesque, Jounice L. Nealy, Kelly Ryan and Eric Stirgus, and researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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