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Gore must now be a uniter, not divider

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© St. Petersburg Times, published December 13, 2000

It's over.

George W. Bush will be the nation's 43rd president. Al Gore ran out of luck and out of time Tuesday night with a U.S. Supreme Court as divided as the country and as the state.

Now Gore has an opportunity to provide the clarity that nine justices could not.

A Gore concession speech will be the most important address ever delivered by the vice president after the mounds of chad and legal wrangling that have scarred this presidential drama. He has an opportunity unique in modern history to bring the nation back together and to reassure voters in a way the courts have failed to do.

What voters desperate for an end need now is a strong, clear voice with a message unqualified by legal footnotes.

Bush has won the difficult job of working with a divided Congress and leading a divided nation. But his first speech, expected to be a high-minded appeal to bring all sides together, will in many ways be easier to deliver than the address Gore is faced with making.

The vice president characterized himself as a fighter during the campaign. Now the fight is over, and the politician known for changing campaign styles and staff will be under pressure to change one more time.

His every word will be analyzed for hidden meaning, his every intonation replayed for signs of frustration and partisanship. Any hopes he has of seeking a rematch with Bush in 2004 will be built upon the last speech of this campaign.

Gore remained in seclusion with his family Tuesday night after the opinion was released at 10 p.m. His campaign manager, William Daley, released a short statement that indicated the campaign would wait until today to respond.

"This is a very difficult evening for him," said Sen. Bob Torricelli, D-N.J. "It has gotten to the end."

Added Tallahassee lawyer Dexter Douglass, part of Gore's legal team: "It sounds like we lost."

For Republicans, the road has been so tough that they sounded more relieved than thrilled.

"Tired, relief, kind of at the end of the road emotionally and physically," Florida Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas said early this morning.

Even the most partisan Florida Republicans quickly understood that it is now up to Gore to bring this election to a close today -- not a state Legislature that has been so determined to appoint a second set of electors for Bush.

"I think they're all going to leave Tallahassee (this morning) and scatter across the state and start buying Christmas presents," said U.S. Rep. Joe Scarborough, R-Pensacola, of state legislators.

At least the state Senate can wait a bit for a Gore speech before following the House's lead and voting for the resolution that would appoint new electors for Bush.

"I think, really, it's not in the Senate's hands, it's in the hands of Vice President Gore," said House Majority Leader Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. "One would hope that he would concede soon and stand down, and allow his supporters and attorneys to do the same."

The remarkable part is not that Gore was finally shot down by the U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday night. It is that he managed to stay in the game as long as he did, exactly five weeks past Election Day.

Two Florida Supreme Court opinions kept Gore alive and so did his campaign's simple refrain: Count the votes.

It was a compelling argument, at least until it became clear that no one agrees whether a vote is just a clear puncture or should also be a hanging chad or a dimple.

But Gore was losing ground again Tuesday even before the nation's highest court ruled. The Florida House voted Tuesday afternoon to name another slate of electors for Bush, and the state Senate was poised to do the same today.

At nightfall, the state Supreme Court rejected two appeals from Democrats who sought to throw out thousands of absentee ballots in Martin and Seminole counties.

But Gore's biggest enemy was time.

If there were more time, the Florida Supreme Court could take a reasonable crack at setting the standards for recounting ballots that the U.S. Supreme Court demanded.

There is no time left.

Tuesday was the deadline for states to name electors that were safe from challenge by Congress. Now many legislators and legal scholars say that mile marker wasn't crucial. The next big day is Dec. 18, when the Electoral College meets in the state capitals to vote for president.

In the flurry of legal battles, it is easy to forget the political markers.

Now Bill Clinton's eight years as president will be sandwiched between Bushes. The Texas governor's father failed to win re-election against Clinton in 1992. But George Herbert Walker Bush's eldest son will succeed the Democrat in what many Republicans see as sweet revenge.

Bush also will become just the second son of a president to be elected to the White House -- and the first since John Quincy Adams in 1824.

But the fact that will haunt Gore is the one his supporters have repeated time and again in recent weeks: Gore won the national popular vote.

The last time a candidate won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College and the presidency was 1888, when Benjamin Harrison defeated Grover Cleveland.

The Texas governor will win by the narrowest Electoral College margin since Rutherford B. Hayes won the last disputed presidential election in 1876. With Florida's 25 electoral votes, Bush will finish with 271. That is just three more than Gore's 267 and one more than the 270 needed to win.

Gore promised for months he would fight for Florida, which no Democrat besides Clinton had won since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

He certainly fulfilled that pledge.

The vice president made 15 trips to Florida this year. He was in Tallahassee on the night of the primary election in March. He was in Tampa the morning of the general election in November.

Five weeks ago this morning, Gore called Bush to concede. If not for Florida, he would never have retracted that call. He would still be fighting for the state and the presidency today if not for the U.S. Supreme Court.

Now Gore faces the toughest challenge of all.

-- Staff writer Shelby Oppel contributed to this report, which also includes information from the Associated Press.

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