St. Petersburg Times Online: Election 2000
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They've come south to spin in the sun a little

Big names - and big talkers - for both parties have descended on Florida to make sure we hear their version.

By ERIC STIRGUS, WES ALLISON and DAVID KARP

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 21, 2000


MIAMI -- They're not here for the warm sun. They're not here for the sandy beaches. They're here to spin.

The ongoing vote recount has brought dozens of out-of-state politicians to Florida, part of aggressive media campaigns in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties designed to shape press coverage -- and therefore your opinion -- in their favor.

In Miami-Dade, three Republican congressmen from New York and Ohio and a U.S. senator from Alaska took turns before television cameras to interpret the recounts. In Broward, the honorables included a Democratic senator from Rhode Island and a lawmaker from Queens. In Palm Beach, Republicans provided a congressman from Indiana and former Florida Secretary of State Jim Smith.

U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman, a portly New York Democrat who represents Queens, flew down Monday to join the fray in Broward. "I came to work on my bikini line," he joshed.

"I was watching TV and there seemed to be a whole lot of Republican legislators and congressmen down here, milling around in Florida," Ackerman said while making the round in the media room. "I thought it would be nice to come down, show the flag, give some support."

"This isn't just a Florida election."

The Republicans say they have 75 employees in South Florida handling the dozens of reporters who have gathered to observe the tedious process of vote counting. The Democrats say they have at least 50, including 20 press people.

"Public opinion always matters, that's why this game is being played," a flushed Shari McCartney, a GOP attorney monitoring the recount in Broward, said after a staged-for-TV shouting match with her Democratic counterpart, Charles Lichtman. "It's the biggest spin story in history."

The first rule of all spinmeisters is to keep their stable of spokespeople of party leaders, "average citizens" and elected officials "on message." This message must be easy to understand and short enough to fit into a TV sound-bite.

So they repeat the same phrases over and over.

Republican spin goes like this: A manual recount provides "room for mischief." Handling the ballots lends itself to fraud and human error.

The Democrats' counterspin: A manual recount "is not rocket science." Counters simply look at the ballots and mark down the vote. (U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch of Fort Lauderdale often expands his message to "it is not rocket science or brain surgery.")

The message should be reinforced by nobility from each side. Republicans shopped Sen. Phil Gramm in Miami-Broward, Montana Gov. Marc Racicot via satellite and lots of local leaders.

"Ladies and gentlemen, if I could make announcement, Congressman Joe Scarborough of the Florida Panhandle will be in here in about two minutes to make some comments to you all," a Republican operative told the crowded Broward County media room at 5:30.

The Democrats countered with Deutsch and offered a conference call with Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island.

In West Palm Beach, reporters searching for a new angle to an old story got regular help from the Republicans. Every few hours, a new GOP surrogate would arrive in a vehicle, accompanied by Bush campaign aides, outside the county's emergency operations center where the recount took place.

Friday afternoon, it was U.S. Rep Mark Foley's turn. As he gave interviews, Foley's aide pushed his business card into reporter's hands. That was followed by copies of press clippings, which supported the points Foley was pounding away on.

Observing it from afar was Judge Charles Burton, chairman of the Palm Beach canvassing board, who appeared frustrated with the Republicans' success.

"I would rather see the media report what they are seeing," Burton told CNN, "rather than report what (the Republicans) are saying."

In Miami-Dade, the talkers included Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who appeared on the Today show and other television shows on Monday, and U.S. Rep. John Sweeney, a Republican from upstate New York.

Since Sunday, Sweeney has held several news conferences inside and outside the Miami-Dade county government center to argue the case for George W. Bush.

"I hope the justices are listening to this and hearing this" Sweeney said Monday, an hour before the Florida Supreme Court heard the case.

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