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Get on with it, frustrated voters begin to cry

By CRAIG PITTMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 11, 2000


Down at the Firehouse restaurant in St. Petersburg, the lunchtime crowd Friday once again had the television tuned to the news channels breathlessly reporting on the continuing crisis in the presidential election.

But some of them were ready to tune it out and move on.

"I think everybody's pretty much tired of it," said manager Tracey Ethridge, 31. "And as it drags on longer, people are going to be even more tired."

To a nation that has grown accustomed to instant gratification from microwaves, cell phones and 24-hour cable channels, the process of sorting out Florida's election mess seems about as rapid as a root canal and twice as painful.

Barbara Smith, a 57-year-old store owner from Marne, Mich., said she was so "stressed" she couldn't watch television anymore.

"This is a nightmare for our country, and I think our country is going to be so divided, whoever is president," said Smith, who voted for Bush.

Web sites for the major TV networks got up to 4-million daily U.S. visitors each. Some computer users said they were so anxious they were hitting the "refresh" button every five minutes. But there was no button to speed up the hand count of Florida's disputed ballots.

Former President Jimmy Carter called for patience. He was largely ignored. Thursday's front page of the New York Post shouted: "Enough Already!"

As the recount proceeded, and backers of the rival claimants to the White House continued to scream at each other, people like Monya Jamison of Hobe Sound said they just wanted the never-ending election to reach a conclusion of some sort, and soon.

"People are hating each other over this," she said while eating at Green's lunch counter in West Palm Beach. "I had to turn off the radio. ... I wish everyone would stop the bashing and the name calling. It's an embarrassment."

But for now the election remains on hold, with neither George W. Bush nor Al Gore the clear winner.

"It doesn't matter anymore. Bush ... Gore ... just give us a president," said Clarissa Wilkison, 25, of Bismarck, N.D.

"Right now, frustration seems to be the dominant mood," said John Kohut of the non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report in Washington. So far the frustration is aimed primarily at Florida election officials, he said, and not so much at the two candidates. That could change in a few days.

"People want an end to it, but they want a fair end to it," Kohut said. "I can see this argument lasting through next Friday while they do the count (of overseas absentee ballots), and that will be sort of the note of finality."

For now, it's all right for Gore's forces to thunder about challenging the election in court, he said. After all, about 50-million voters want him to win. If Gore remains the loser in the final count next week, then public sentiment is likely to turn against putting the final decision on the presidency in the hand of a judge, Kohut said.

But some voters say that no matter how long it takes, the nation should do whatever is necessary to determine who really won.

"We're talking about the presidency of the United States," said Port Richey retiree Nick Messina, 61. "Nobody should steal an election. The arrogance of Bush to say he's the winner -- I voted for Bush, but I don't like what's going on now."

Tom Patterson, a Harvard University professor who heads a voter survey project, said a majority of Americans are already disgusted with presidential politics and all this wrangling may further poison their feelings.

His "Vanishing Voter" project has found that an overwhelming number of Americans, both voters and non-voters, think modern campaigns are more like entertainment than something to be taken seriously, and that candidates are more concerned with fighting each other than with solving the nation's problems.

This election and its likely aftermath will only fuel those impressions. "Who wants to win under this situation?" Kohut asked. "You can forget a honeymoon period. There's going to be pretty much open warfare from the day you start the job."

To Boston University presidential historian Robert Dallek, this is merely the culmination of events that began with John Kennedy's assassination and continued with the political struggles over Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-Contra and impeachment.

"This is the nadir of the imperial presidency," Dallek said. People no longer want a powerful chief executive. They think the country is better off with "a presidency in eclipse," one hamstrung by congressional gridlock, partisan bickering and a lack of a clear mandate. But this election is likely to set up the weakest presidency in more than a century.

"No matter who wins Florida now, there will be painful recriminations," Dallek said. "There is going to be terrible bitterness. Either man who enters the office now is going to enter it with some degree of illegitimacy."

The same thing happened in 1876, when Rutherford B. Hayes lost the popular vote to Samuel Tilden but beat Tilden in a bitter battle over the Electoral College vote. Hayes won the race but the voters lost all respect for him.

"People called him "Ruther-fraud Hayes' " Dallek said. "It was a blighted presidency."

In the Tampa Bay area, local radio disc jockeys have already begun calling Bush "President Snippy."

- Times staff writer Alicia Caldwell and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report, which contains information from Times wires.

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