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What a difference 12 hours makes

With projections shifting throughout the night, Election Day proves to be a wild ride.

By MARY JACOBY, BILL ADAIR, SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 9, 2000


At 3:59 p.m. Tuesday, three hours before the polls closed, the Florida campaign headquarters of Vice President Al Gore sent an e-mail message to hundreds of people statewide.

"Dear Friends," it began. "Voter turnout is high today and this race is extremely tight. The election may come down to the wire, and Florida may make the difference in the Electoral College."

Despite the partisan nature, it was one of the most accurate statements to emerge from one of the most confusing periods in American political history.

Over the next 12 hours, the outcome of the presidential race in the key state of Florida swung back and forth so many times it was impossible to tell who had won. And because the entire election hinged on the Florida results, Gore, Texas Gov. George W. Bush and millions of their supporters found themselves on the emotional equivalent of one of the dizzying rides for which Florida tourist attractions are so justly famous.

Bush and his family had barely finished dinner, grilled shrimp and parmesan-encrusted chicken, when the five major TV networks awarded Florida to Gore.

And Gore barely had time to get excited when the networks decided Florida was too close to call. Hours later, Florida moved into the Bush column and Gore phoned his rival to concede.

But that too proved premature. As groggy Americans awoke Wednesday morning and switched their TVs back on, they discovered Florida once again was considered a tossup.

Here's how the drama unfolded:

7:10 P.M., TUESDAY: It's a cold, blustery night in Austin, Texas, as Bush's motorcade pulls up to the back entrance of the Shoreline Grill. It's a trendy restaurant next to the Four Seasons hotel where the Bush party plans to watch the election returns with friends.

A TV news producer shouts: "You've won New Hampshire" -- the state where Bush's presidential ambitions nearly died last winter.

"That's good," Bush replies, thumbs up.

The entourage, which includes Bush's parents and his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, disappears into a private dining room.

7:52 P.M.: The polls don't close for another eight minutes in most of Florida, but the Associated Press is already predicting the winner of the state and its 25 electoral votes: Al Gore. CNN and the other major TV networks quickly follow suit, based on exit polling.

Cheers go up at the Loews Vanderbilt Plaza in Nashville, Tenn., headquarters of the Gore camp and its supporters. Campaign staffers exchange high fives in the lobby.

At the restaurant in Austin, all eyes at the table turn toward Jeb Bush, the man who was supposed to help deliver Florida for his brother. There is clearly some consternation.

The party breaks up. Leaving Jeb and several other relatives behind, Bush heads back to the Governor's Mansion with wife, Laura, and his parents.

Within the next hour, the networks add two other big, important states to the Gore column -- Pennsylvania and Michigan. The tide seems to be going in the vice president's favor; network anchors note that Pennsylvania has been won by every successful presidential candidate since 1972.

9:30 P.M.: Bush summons a group of reporters to his private living quarters where he, his wife and parents are seated cozily around a fireplace. In what seems to be a staged scene, he hangs up the phone as the journalists enter.

"That was the governor of Pennsylvania," Bush says. "He's not conceding anything, and I'm not either, in the state of Pennsylvania."

Bush adds that he still expects to win Florida and is pleased that he has already carried Tennessee, Al Gore's home state.

How does he expect to get through the night when his whole future is on the line? "Actually my future isn't on the line. I'm not worried about me getting through it."

Bush gestures toward his parents, George and Barbara, indicating he's more concerned about them.

His father, the former president, confesses to feeling "nervous and proud."

Says his mother: "We haven't been up this late in years."

9:30 P.M.: Florida is suddenly looking shaky for Gore.

At Bush headquarters in Austin, chief political strategist Karl Rove is in shock at the network predictions. They don't jibe with his own reports from the state telling him that Bush is ahead of vote projections in many counties, including the big Jacksonville area.

Rove fears that Bush supporters in the West who haven't voted yet will stay away from the polls when they hear the news about Florida. He orders aides to call the networks; Rove himself goes on NBC to challenge the prediction.

9:50 P.M.: "It's too close to call," says Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, noting 500,000 votes are still uncounted in the Panhandle, which tends to go Republican in national elections.

9:55 P.M.: Among much shouting in the network's Atlanta control room, the vice president of CNN's U.S. operations decides to move Florida back into the too-close-to-call column. Other networks and media outlets soon follow suit.

Thousands of Bush supporters, watching on a large screen TV in front of the Texas Capitol, roar in delight. In Nashville, Gore's deflated campaign staffers leave the Loews' lobby and retreat to their private suites upstairs.

Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile insists she's optimistic but concedes "it's still too close to call."

1:30 A.M., WEDNESDAY: By now most states have fallen into one camp or the other, leaving Bush and Gore tied with 242 electoral votes each, 28 short of the total needed to win. Florida, still considered too close to call, remains the juiciest prize.

2:15 A.M.: The networks show Bush surging to a 50,000-vote lead in Florida. They quickly declare him the winner of the state and the overall election.

Crowds in Austin -- dubbed "Victory City" by one TV commentator -- let out a mighty cheer. Loudspeakers blare the Motown classic Signed, Sealed, Delivered as supporters chant, "We Want George."

"It's a new day in America! George W. Bush: 43rd president of America!" Fred McClure, a prominent black Texas Republican, yells to the crowd.

Newspapers nationwide, already pushing their deadlines, roll the presses. "BUSH!" blares the huge headline on the Austin American-Statesman, as the first 59,000 copies roll off the presses.

2:30 A.M.: At the Loews in Nashville, campaign volunteer Philomena Desmond sits down in front of a Gore-Lieberman sign, buries her face in her hands, and sobs.

In Gore's suite upstairs, staffers shake their heads in frustration. Gore, dressed more casually than usual in jeans and sports shirt, shows no anger or dismay.

"I'm going to go change clothes," he said matter-of-factly.

Gore phones Bush, concedes he has lost the election and congratulates his opponent.

You're a good man and I respect you, Bush pleasantly replies. He says he realizes how difficult the call must be for the vice president and sends his regards to Tipper Gore and the Gore children.

As Gore makes the call, Secret Service agents prepare his motorcade to go to War Memorial Plaza about half a mile away.

3 A.M.: The motorcade begins its slow journey through the wet streets of downtown Nashville toward the War Memorial, a huge, Romanesque building now washed in blue floodlights.

The limousines are about two blocks from the memorial when Gore field director Michael Whouley pages traveling chief of staff Michael Feldman to inform him of a startling development: The Florida secretary of state now says that only 6,000 votes separate Gore from Bush and that a large number of votes remain uncounted. Feldman in turn calls campaign chairman William Daley to tell him the news.

By the time the motorcade reaches the War Memorial, the count is down to fewer than 1,000 votes. Gore and key staffers meet in a basement room of the building to discuss the situation.

Outside, in a steady drizzle, David Morehouse, Gore's trip director, and thousands of Gore supporters are waiting for the concession speech or, alternatively, any fresh news. The big-screen TVs that had been showing election returns were turned off shortly before Gore arrived.

A flurry of cell phone calls and pages sends Morehouse scurrying inside.

"It may be closer than we thought," he says.

"It's down to 500 votes in Florida," adds senior strategist Greg Simon as he too rushes to see Gore.

In the basement office, Gore and his staff decide to call Bush and retract the concession.

BETWEEN 3:30 and 3:45 A.M.: As his daughters Karenna and Kristin sob in the background, Gore phones Bush again. He calmly tells him that when he first called, the networks had declared Bush the winner based on the margin in Florida. Now that there is only a 600-vote difference with so many votes still uncounted, he is withdrawing his concession until the winner of Florida can be positively determined.

"Let me make sure I understand," Bush protests, his victory speech in hand. "You're calling me back to retract your concession?"

"You don't have to get snippy about this," comes Gore's tart reply.

Bush tells Gore that Jeb Bush, who had been monitoring returns on the Florida secretary of state's Web site, had assured him victory was in the bag.

"Let me explain something," Gore retorts. "Your younger brother is not the ultimate authority on this."

Gore hangs up and pats staffers encouragingly.

Outside in the rainy plaza, other campaign workers are still making preparations for Gore to speak. The big-screen TVs, which had been showing a Gore-Lieberman logo, are again tuned to election results.

"Recount! Recount!" the crowd shouts as CBS reports the latest developments from Florida.

The channel is switched to other networks and the chant changes:

"Stay and fight! Stay and fight!"

3:41 A.M.: CNN reporter Candy Crowley, reporting from Austin, announces that "The vice president has called the governor and retracted his concession."

In Nashville, the Gore crowd erupts in cheers.

4:05 A.M.: Fox News says Bush leads in Florida by 1,210 votes. Gore supporters fall silent. Then comes a report that Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth, chairman of Gore's Florida campaign, is about to release a statement that the results are unclear and the election is not yet over.

"Yeah!" the crowd yells.

A few minutes later, Daley, chairman of the Gore campaign, emerges from the War Memorial.

"I have some news to share with you tonight," he starts. "And let me say: I've been in politics for a long time. But there's never been a night like this one."

Daley says the decision to call the race for Bush may have been "premature," that the tiny vote margin means an automatic recount under Florida law and that the outcome of the national election has "come down to the state of Florida."

"I want to add that Vice President Gore and Sen. Lieberman are fully prepared to concede and support Gov. George W. Bush if and when he is officially elected president. But this race is still too close to call and until the recount is concluded and the results in Florida become official, our campaign continues."

With that, Daley strides into the War Memorial. The Gore motorcade already has returned to the Loews.

Back at the hotel, Desmond, the volunteer who had been crying, looks relieved.

"I prayed my rosary," she says. "God answered my prayers."

4:30 A.M.: Bush has gone to bed. Evans, his campaign chairman, takes the stage outside the Capitol in Austin.

"We hope and believe he will be elected the next president of the United States," he says. "They're still counting. And I'm confident when it's all said and done, we will prevail."

His remarks are drowned out by cheers.

-- Staffers Tim Nickens and Caryn Baird contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press and the New York Times.

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