A week after the last debate, Bush strategist Karl Rove sat in his office in Austin, hung with black-and-white portraits of his heroes--Teddy Roosevelt, Gen. George S. Patton and Amelia Earhart, plungers all--and tried not to appear overconfident. He was chatting on the "batphone," his private direct line to the candidate, whom Rove carefully continued to address as "Sir." Bush was calling from his bus as it sped down country roads in his opponent's home state of Tennessee. "People are lining the road," exclaimed Bush over the phone. "I'm doing great among the double-wide vote"--the people who live in trailers. ("Bubba?" said Rove. "They relate [to Bush]. The Elvis voter is culturally conservative. Al Gore ain't culturally conservative. He doesn't relate to deer hunters.") Bush asked to speak to Matthew Dowd, in charge of polling. The candidate wanted to hear the overnights state by state. "We're going to win in Tennessee, Governor," said Dowd. California? "If we go into Election Day down three, we're going to win California," Dowd said. New Mexico? "Done," said Dowd. Ohio? "Done." While Dowd talked to the governor on the batphone, Rove stood nearby, playing catch with a yellow ball, humming a ditty and smiling a goofy grin.
Rove had reason to be happy. The mighty vote-winning machine he had built for George Bush over the past six years seemed to be roaring along. In a close election, the "ground war"--the effort to turn out voters and get them to the polls on Election Day--is crucial. Rove had been cranking up a sophisticated GOTV--Get Out the Vote--operation since 1994, when Bush first ran for governor of Texas. After the election, Rove discovered that turnout was much higher among registered voters who had been contacted by the Bush operation than among those who had not--52 to 39 percent. That 13-point difference made Rove determined to match the effort on a national scale. All around the country, the Bush campaign had set up Victory 2000 committees. In every battleground state, 15 percent of the voters were targeted as swing voters. Each one of those voters received five to seven pieces of mail--about 140 million mailings all together, by far the largest mail blitz in political history. To Florida voters alone, the Bush camp sent out 17 million mailings. Such a gigantic effort was expensive, but the Republicans had raised, all told, about $400 million for the election--more than twice as much as the Clinton-Gore campaign raised in the 1996 presidential race. More than $56 million would be spent in the last five weeks on voter turnout. The Democrats and Gore could not match those totals. The GOP's Victory 2000 trove, Rove believed, was the Democrats' greatest fear.
At 5 a.m. on Oct. 26, Dowd sat in his office sifting through the overnight tracking polls. "Boom!" he said, pumping his fist in the air. "White women up four [points] nationally!" At 6:45, Rove called. He was just out of the shower but couldn't wait until he got in to see the numbers. When he strolled into the office around 7, his hair still wet, Rove sang his trademark "Good Morning Song" with such enthusiasm that he crouched down and made himself into a rooster. Rove and Dowd moved to a wall map of the United States to contemplate media markets. Where should they reserve airtime for the final week? Rove authorized additional ad buys for Tennessee, California and Minnesota. Not in Minnesota, exactly, but TV stations that reached Minnesota from neighboring states. Rove had a stealth strategy for the traditionally liberal state, which had not voted Republican in the past six presidential elections. Feints and thrusts captured Rove's imagination. The campaign was pouring money into California, not really because the Bushies thought they could win there, but rather to unsettle the Democrats and divert Gore to stump on what should have been safe territory. In the off-chance that Bush did capture California, he would go to Washington with a true national mandate. (Also, California was lucrative fund-raising territory, and the big Golden State donors were reluctant to pony up for Bush unless he promised to spend some time there.) Rove clearly enjoyed his machinations. "I love it when a plan comes together!" he declared in mock awe. "My life has meaning!"
Tad Devine, the day-to-day boss of the Gore campaign, was doing his best to boost morale. With less than three weeks to go, at the 6:30 p.m. staff meeting at headquarters in Nashville, Devine dressed up in an Elvis Presley white jumpsuit and wig, stepped up to the karaoke machine and belted out "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Born to Be Wild." He dedicated the songs to George W. Bush. The Gore team began having skits every evening of the stretch run. Comedian Al Franken showed up and said that he had advised the vice president to turn to George Bush during the debates and say, "I knew George Bush, George Bush was a friend of mine, and you, sir, are no George Bush!" ("That," Franken said dryly, "will hopelessly confuse him.") Everyone had a good chuckle, but there was an element of forced gaiety to the proceedings. Even Devine conceded that his relentless optimism had become a bit of a joke in Nashville. "I believe Gore is going to win," he said over and over again, sometimes to no one in particular. Devine told Karenna Gore Schiff that the campaign was on the verge of doing well and even moving ahead. She looked at him with a wary eye and inquired, "Are you telling me this to make me feel good?"
A Gore aide sifting through the polling data on Sunday evening, Oct. 22, was uneasy. He feared a repeat of 1980, when the undecided vote broke big for the challenger, Ronald Reagan, in the final days of the campaign. True, the bottom hadn't fallen out for Gore. On the other hand, "nothing has jelled that tells me the movement has started towards us," he said. Five days later--with the election now 10 days away--the same aide was still in anxious limbo, not despairing but far from confident. "Long tunnel, small light, but it is not over," the aide said. "I think Gore gets one more chance."
But how to seize it? The consultants were struggling, uncertainly, to get the campaign out of its post debate doldrums. So many advisers crowded onto the line for the daily conference calls that some days, an aide said, the conversation felt like a levee in the court of Louis XIV, a cacophony of courtiers and place holders maneuvering for attention and advantage. Pollster Stanley Greenberg was once again tinkering with the "Message." The wording kept shifting slightly, and aides responsible for testing it before focus groups constantly had to check back to make sure they were using the latest language.
Greenberg was irked by the media attention to Gore's unappealing personality. The endless talk about why the voters didn't "like" Al Gore was the source of mordant jokes on the campaign plane. Areporter and a Gore aide suggested a bumper sticker: AL GORE: HE DOESN'T LIKE YOU EITHER. (Told of the spoof, Gore chuckled dryly.) Greenberg had been seen as a savior in late summer when he developed Gore's neopopulist pitch for the convention. By helping bring home the Democratic base, he deserved credit for some of Gore's early September surge. Yet now he was flummoxed. He hadn't expected that Bush's attacks on Gore as an old-fashioned, big-spending liberal would be so effective. The campaign had worked up an ad arguing that the veep's proposed targeted tax cuts were smaller and more responsible than Bush's across-the-board cuts. But in the focus groups, voters were skeptical: they suspected that Gore would give back less so the federal government could spend more. The ad tested so poorly it never ran. "You could tell how irritated Greenberg was," said a colleague. "He was like a quarterback whose passes are being dropped."
Consultant Bob Shrum was equally frustrated. He was a great believer in the "air war," the paid ads that drummed home the candidate's strength and the opponent's weaknesses. Shrum sometimes said that the campaign would be won or lost by the air war in the battleground states. But no one was ever sure the expensive air war was working for Gore. Earlier in the campaign, media man Carter Eskew kept asking, "Are we getting anything for our money?" The answers were vague. One aide said the air war reminded him of Vietnam. "The generals are not sure the bombing campaign is doing any good," he said, "but they better not stop."
Still, the search went on for the smart bomb. The Democrats' most tried-and-true weap-on was to demagogue Social Security. In 1996, Clinton had scored with the elderly by warning darkly that the GOP would take away their Social Security checks and slash Medicare. Gore's aides were hoping to win the vote-rich swing states of Florida and Pennsylvania, the two states with the highest percentage of older citizens, by scaring the old folks. One Gore ad zeroed in on Bush's plan to allow younger voters to invest some of their Social Security payroll taxes in private retirement accounts. That same money, the ad argued, was needed to pay current benefits to senior citizens. "So what happens when Bush promises the same money to young workers and to seniors?" the ad asks. "Answer: one promise gets broken." Another ad featured a former commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Robert Ball, warning about the risks of the Bush proposal. The ad tested well with focus groups; a top Gore aide called it "the one bomb, the one hope of the campaign."
Other aides believed Gore's best bet was to hammer away at the inexperience of his opponent. When voters stepped into the booth on Election Day, would they really pull the lever for a one-and-a-half-term governor who had barely traveled outside the United States? The Gore pollsters were encouraged by the apprehensions voiced by a focus group in Cedar Rapids, Iowa ("How much more American can you get?"). Voters were asked: if they were to shy away from Bush at the last possible moment, what would be their reason? Bush's lack of experience and Gore's greater knowledge of government and the world came up repeatedly, along with a lot of disparaging chatter about Bush's reliance on "Daddy." Pollster Greenberg, in particular, saw voter concern over Bush's callowness as Gore's ace in the hole. "We're seeing serious, real movement on Bush and his capacity to do the job," Greenberg said with less then two weeks to go. "Bush has gone from 38 to 44 percent in a week on whether he's in over his head." The campaign immediately began putting together ads touting Gore's experience and questioning Bush's. Gore surrogates on the campaign trail were instructed to swing away at Bush as not ready for the Oval Office. "It's the elephant in the room," declared spokesman Mark Fabiani.
Like the GOP, the Democrats were pouring resources into the ground war. Donnie Fowler, national political director for the Gore campaign, promised "the most intensive voter-turn-out program in history." The Democratic GOTV program was half again bigger than the Clinton-Gore push in 1992. The Dems planned to send out 40 million pieces of mail in the last 10 days. They knew they would be out-financed by the Republicans, but they hoped to make up for that with people power. "I'm sure that in terms of mail and phone calls they will outspend us," said DNC strategist Michael Whouley. "We will have more people on the streets between now and Election Day, knocking on doors."
Privately, however, top gore strategists worried about how many voters would answer. "People aren't interested," acknowledged campaign chairman Bill Daley. Enthusiasm was low in many traditionally Democratic districts. African-American congressmen and state legislators often run against token Republican opposition, "so they don't spend any money," said Daley. "It's the local races that get people ginned up. That's where the time, workers and enthusiasm come from, and when you don't have that, it's a big disadvantage." Some top Democrats worried that the Republican voters would be easier to turn out. "I just assume their base is hungrier than ours," said Fowler, whose business card calls him "director of retail sales. "They've been out of power for eight years, sort of like the Democrats in 1992." He added, reluctantly, that many voters would be motivated by "the visceral hatred of Bill and Hillary Clinton."
Big Labor was supposed to be the Democrats' big GOTV gun. But Gore's support of free trade had not endeared him to assembly-line workers, who feared that cheap labor abroad would cost jobs at home and drive down wages. A significant number of angry workers were joining mad-as-hell protesters of all stripes to back the stubborn candidacy of Ralph Nader.
The Gore staff made no attempt to hide their anger at the longtime consumer advocate and King of the Greens. "Nader could cost us the election. Period. End of story," said a top Gore aide. "He gets it, too. I think he wants to do it. He's on one of the great ego trips of modern times." Making a direct appeal to Nader to drop out of the race was worse than useless, the Gore team figured. Back-channel envoys were sure to be gleefully exposed by the left-wing polemicist, who seemed to be enjoying his moment of notoriety. There was not much point in telling Nader's ardent army of followers--5 percent of the voters in most pre-election polls--that they were wasting their vote. The Gore campaign hoped that about half of Nader's supporters, old-line Democratic liberals dissatisfied with the centrist drift of the party, would come home at the end. Ads mocking Bush's environmental record in Texas were aimed partly at them. But fully half of Nader's supporters seemed determined to cast a protest vote--and damn the consequences. The cost, the Gore team reckoned, could be grave: the margin of victory in a half-dozen states from the Pacific Northwest to Maine.
None of these gloomy omens seemed to be affecting the candidate himself. Forsaking his earth tones for his old blue suit, red tie and gleaming white shirt, Gore was wading into big crowds in the Midwest. In Madison, Wis., on Oct. 26, 30,000 people turned out at a Gore rally. Coatless, hot against the autumn chill, Gore shouted out a stem-wind-er. From Air Force Two that night, he joined a conference call with members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Gore was in high spirits. "This feels great," he enthused. "We're going to win this thing." The others on the line were not so cheerful. Gore had barely finished his pitch when Maxine Waters, the outspoken African-American member of Congress from Los Angeles, burst out, "What about Clinton? We really need him."
She was raising a sore subject. Clinton was itching to hit the hustings, but most Gore strategists, and certainly Gore himself, didn't want to see the president anywhere near the campaign. They were still smarting over Clinton's unwanted intrusion into the race a week before. At a meeting with congressional Democrats, Clinton had piped up that he "almost gagged" when, during the third debate, Bush falsely claimed credit for Texas's patient's bill of rights and Gore failed to call him on it. The remark had made front-page news. From Nashville, Tad Devine called Clinton's deputy chief of staff, Steve Richetti, to complain. "Listen, this is bad, and I want to tell you why it's bad," Devine told the White House aide. "Before the president did this, Gore had a 46 [percent] favorable [rating], 42 unfavorable. After the president did this, Gore had a 42 favorable and a 47 unfavorable. What happens is, the president goes out and awakens doubts about Gore, and all the bad stuff about Gore--his trustworthiness, his veracity--begins to come to the surface." Richetti called back the next day and said the president understood. The two camps had agreed: Clinton would campaign in Louisiana to boost black turnout and in California (including Waters's district), then back in Harlem for Hillary. "And that's it," said Devine. "That's the Clinton gig." No big rallies in the Midwest--too many easily alienated swing voters.
Gore tried to explain all this by phone to the Black Caucus as he flew to his next campaign stop on Air Force Two. Clinton posed a dilemma for the campaign, said the veep. The Republicans were trying to drag Clinton into the race. They want to run against the president, "not me," Gore said. Gore reminded the restless lawmakers that in 1998, when the Democrats won an unexpected number of House seats, they avoided mass rallies in big cities and quietly mobilized minority voters through targeted phone calls by Clinton. "That might be a better strategy," Gore gently suggested. Sensing the skepticism of his listeners, knowing that the rumors of bad blood between the old running mates was now front-page fodder, Gore went on, "Listen, this guy is my friend, and this isn't any kind of personal thing. Sometimes people misunderstand that."
Back at headquarters, campaign chairman Bill Daley was a little more direct. People who think that Clinton should be out there making speeches for Gore don't know the facts, he said--like Clinton's high disapproval rating among Michigan African-Americans. "They don't care, because they had this genius idea at a cocktail party." The normally patient Daley was getting tired of having to calm Washington power types, whom he described as "fat a--es," every time the polls twitched. That weekend, CNN had suddenly shown Bush 12 points ahead. "All over Washington people were, like, 'Oh, it's over, it's over'." Then on Monday, CNN flipped back and showed Gore down by just two. "Now they're like, 'Told you it was close'," said Daley, sighing. He did not sound like a man who loved his job. "This is not easy stuff," he confided. "It's one of those things you do once in your life." Throughout the conversation he was either yawning or glancing at the three muted TV sets in his office. "This business is crazy, the way we elect a president," he said.
Gore dealt with the pressures by turning inward, toward his family. Wife Tipper and daughter Karenna were constant companions on the trail, and daughter Kristin, a Hollywood comedy writer, came aboard on Western swings. When Gore was avoiding his advisers before the last debate, he sneaked off with Karenna to go swimming in an ice-cold lake. The consultants looked warily upon the political influence of the Gore women. Fearful of alienating pro-life voters, Gore generally backed into his answers on abortion. He adopted the old Clinton formulation, saying first that abortions should be "safe, legal and rare." Karenna had pushed Gore to be more direct in his support for abortion rights. It was as though, one aide complained, she wanted her father to sound like "the Vice President of Planned Parenthood." Likewise, Gore's aides were aghast when Tipper started talking about women's issues when she introduced Gore at rallies. "What is she doing?" the consultants would ask. Tipper was unbowed. "If y'all aren't going to help him get elected, I will," she told them. "Women vote."
Tipper's moods provoked some grumbling in the Gore camp. She upbraided staffers if her holding room was not stocked with Slim-Fast shakes. But no one denied that Gore needed her and used her as an escape from the constant coaching and handling that presidential candidates have to endure. Tipper, for her part, was not shy about advertising their means of diversion. To AP reporter Sandra Sobieraj, she related this mildly steamy e-mail exchange between her husband, who at the time was rehearsing in Florida for the first debate, and herself, back at the vice president's mansion in Washington. Gore was typing on his BlackBerry messenger while he stood at the podium:
Al: I love you. How are you doing? I'm in the middle of debate prep. Paul [Begala, his sparring partner] is talking. They're wondering what I'm doing.
Tipper: Oh, I know what I'd like to be doing with you right now. [Tipper writes something she describes as "a little lascivious."]
Al: I'm losing my concentration now. We have to stop.
It was inevitable, perhaps, that the campaign would turn nasty. Knowing the voters' distaste for the low road, both the Bush and the Gore camps had tried to keep the contest on a higher plane for most of the fall. But independent groups could be counted on for some low blows, which began falling in late October. An obscure pro-Bush group in Texas bought an ad that was a replay of the most infamous scare ad in political history, the "daisy" ad used by the Democrats and LBJ against Barry Goldwater in 1964. In the original, the sweet image of a little girl plucking the petals off a daisy morphed into the countdown to a nuclear blast. In the 2000 iteration, the missiles were coming from China, not Russia; the ad blamed Gore for failing to back a big enough antimissile shield. Democrats launched a phone campaign that seemed to blame Bush for the death of a man in a Texas nursing home. Both ads set off a round of finger-pointing and predictions of a mud fight.
In the Bush camp, adman Stuart Stevens was, as ever, raring to join the fray. He was waking up at night thinking, "How are we going to lose?" He was fretting particularly about Gore's ad campaign to convince the elderly that Bush would rob their Social Security checks. "It's driving me crazy," he told a reporter late in October. "We're getting our brains beat out on Social Security and I think we need to fight back." He had backing this time from his boss at Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon. In a rare moment of bravado, the normally mild McKinnon announced, "When you got your boot on the other guy's neck, you don't let him up. We're going to throw a little lead." Maverick put together an ad called "Nonsense" to run in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida. The idea was both to defend Bush on Social Security and to show Gore as an arrogant egghead. "Gore's bending the truth on Social Security," a woman announcer intoned. An old news clip showed Gore piously insisting that he had never said anything he knew to be untrue. The kicker: "He really will say anything to get elected."
Bush's media men were confident that "Nonsense" would cut through the clutter of ads that overwhelm the airwaves and confuse and irritate voters in the final days. They had not counted on a mini-scandal that would raise doubts about their own candidate's willingness to tell the truth.
As he rolled into his final week of campaigning, Bush was so pumped up that he began doing jumping jacks before rallies. His entrances were right out of the Worldwide Wrestling Federation: Van Halen's "Right Now" blaring, balloons cascading, lights flashing, Bush swaggering and holding up three fingers in a trademark "W." Before a speech in Des Moines, Iowa, on Wednesday night, Nov. 1, he sashayed around backstage like a vaudeville showgirl, twisting his waist one way and thrusting his arms out the other. In speeches, he continued to mangle the language, turning "integral" into "ingridable." In Missouri, he got so carried away attacking Gore as a big-spending, big-government liberal that he blurted out, "They want the federal government controlling Social Security like it's some kind of federal program!" Gore had some fun with that whopper, and the Democrats cut a mocking ad. But the Bush campaign, and most of the press corps, seemed to shrug off the candidate's "Bush-isms."
Then, as the campaign swung through Illinois a little after 5 p.m. on the last Thursday before Election Day, reporters began hearing the news that Bush had been arrested for drunken driving in Maine back in 1976. Here was a test for Karen Hughes. The communications director had been growing more confident since her shaky start in the early primaries. It seemed to steady and soften the brassy, sometimes rigid Hughes to travel with her 13-year-old son, Robert; she was home-schooling the boy on the road. Mother and son were often seen, arms around each other, chatting or going over homework. On the airport tarmac in Chicago after the DUI story broke, Hughes's eyes betrayed her anxiety, but she calmly handled the scrum of agitated reporters. They were demanding to know why the campaign had tried to keep the candidate's arrest under wraps. She promised to get the reporters any information they needed. The real trick was to produce Bush, who was reluctant to meet the press. Hughes and Mark McKinnon, sitting in the staff van at the next airport stop in Milwaukee, talked to Karl Rove and Joe Allbaugh, Bush's campaign manager, back in Austin. "It's not a big deal," McKinnon told Hughes. "The only problem is that it came out late in the game."
A few minutes later, Bush stood silent in the 45-degree chill outside the Dairy Cattle Barn in West Allis, Wis., a Milwaukee suburb. Inside, some 12,000 supporters, unaware of the small drama playing outside, were roaring for the candidate. Bush's first calls had been to warn the twins at college. He had not revealed his drunken-driving arrest before, he said, because he didn't want his daughters to know about it. "I want you to know that there's going to be an unflattering story about your dad tomorrow," he began when he got each daughter on the phone. (They handled it well, Bush told NEWSWEEK. "Does it hurt you?" they both asked.) Now he was being urged to address a pack of frothing reporters. "I'm not sure I need to do this," Bush told Hughes and McKinnon. Hughes got back on the phone to Rove. "Where are you on this?" she asked. "I think he should go on," said Rove. "Say it to him," said Hughes, and handed the mobile phone to Bush. "I've seen the way this is playing on television, and people are going to want to hear from you," Rove told the candidate. Bush arched his eyebrows and turned his palms up. "OK, put me in," he said, echoing the John Fogerty song "Centerfield" that plays at his rallies ("Put me in, coach/I'm ready to play").
Greeting the press after his stump speech, he took a deep breath (as he often did upon making an entrance) and mixed contrition and pugnacity. "I was wrong and I told the [arresting] officer I was wrong," he allowed, before pushing back: "I do find it interesting that this has come out four or five days before the election." No fewer than seven times he pointed his finger at the Democrats for playing games by peddling the DUI story. With his aides afterward, Bush was pleased with his performance. "I told you we needed to do this," he joked.
Bellying up to the hotel bar in Milwaukee, Hughes tried some damage control with the press. "I know, I know," she said to Wayne Slater of The Dallas Morning News, "you said we should've gotten it out earlier." Slater had asked Bush point-blank back in 1998 if he had ever been arrested for anything at any time after he was caught stealing a Christmas wreath as a frat-boy prank in New Haven, Conn., in 1968. According to Slater, Governor Bush first said "No," then seemed about to amend his answer when Hughes jumped in and cut off Slater's line of questioning. The exact contents of this conversation were now a subject of great curiosity among reporters ready to catch Bush in a lie. Slater stuck to his story that Bush had first answered "No," but Hughes insisted, "The governor disagrees with that. He does not recall saying no." In the end, Hughes succeeded in muddying up the story so that reporters weren't sure whom or what to believe.
The DUI story flared on the talking-head TV shows and on some, but not all, front pages. Then it quickly faded. The Bushies seemed relatively unperturbed. In the hotel bar late that Thursday night, over the course of two martinis and a beer, media man McKinnon was convinced that the danger would pass. Voters would be angrier at the Democrats for playing dirty tricks than they would be at Bush for trying to hide a quarter-century-old arrest, especially since he had quit drinking 14 years ago. "This could even win us votes," he said. A man from suburban Philadelphia struck up a conversation with the Bush aides. He said that he had just talked to his wife, one of those key undecided women voters in Pennsylvania, and she told him that the revelation "didn't matter a bit." "See?" McKinnon said. "People don't care."
When it first broke, the DUI story raised hopes in the Gore camp. In a tight race, pollster Stanley Greenberg figured, even a small distraction mattered. "Trust is everything here right at the end. If any piece of it erodes, it could have an impact," he said hopefully. But by midafternoon on Friday, the Gore people were worrying about a backlash. "It makes Bush sympathetic," said a distraught aide. "It's easier for him to defend his personal character than his idiot Social Security program." Bush's arrest record had apparently been leaked by a Democrat in Maine. Chris Lehane's Maine roots made Gore's traveling spokesman suspect as the secret disher. Lehane went straight to the vice president. "They're going to point fingers at me because I know every single Democrat in the state," Lehane told Gore. "Just so you know, I didn't do it."
The vice president's advisers were working to keep the candidate bucked up. "Any news?" Gore asked Bob Shrum on the final Friday. "Yes, and most of it's good," replied the consultant. Gore was up by three points in possibly the most critical swing state, Florida, with its 25 electoral votes. Gore was also hanging on to tiny leads in a number of other battlegrounds. Shrum did tell Gore that CNN's tracking poll showed Bush up by six points nationally. "I don't pay any attention to that poll," Gore scoffed.
The consultants were fighting again, this time over whether the campaign, in its final days, should be "big and positive" or "down and dirty." Pollster Greenberg wanted a more positive tone and grew noticeably angry when his advice was ignored. "You can't close negative," he chided the others. "You've got to have a vision for the future." But the media consultants, schooled in the Shrum attack style, were afraid to let up. They believed that attacking Bush on Social Security was moving the numbers in Florida. This was not the time to dilute the message.
Four days before the election, Greenberg was already starting to look back, to reflect on the strategic decisions that might have turned the election. "If we win, which not a lot of people expect," he conceded, "there are some choices each campaign makes--and their choice not to respond to the attacks on the Texas record could prove decisive." The Gore campaign had been banging away at Governor Bush's environmental, health and education record in Texas since August, and the Bush camp had never tried to counter the assault. "You can go to focus groups in any battleground state and they can recite what's wrong with Texas," said Greenberg.
Greenberg was well aware, of course, that if Gore lost he would get much of the blame. Inevitably, the finger-pointing had already begun inside the veep's fractious camp. There were loud grumbles that Shrum and Greenberg had overdone the old Democratic populism and abandoned the New Democratic rhetoric that had won the White House for Clinton in '92 and '96. Spokesmen Lehane and Fabiani, for their part, were unhappy with Shrum and Greenberg for relying too heavily on the air war. As believers in their product--free media--the two spokesmen contended that Gore should have been out front earlier and more fervently attacking Bush for lacking the experience and intelligence to be president.
No one was exempt from the carping, which came from all quarters. Tipper Gore was complaining that only white males had represented the Gore campaign on TV. Bush had Karen Hughes and Condi Rice out front for him. Where, she wanted to know, were Gore's women? In the view of some in-house critics, the high command had misplayed the Ralph Nader challenge. To counter the Nader vote, Nashville headquarters had sent a parade of liberals to the West Coast, principally to Washington and Oregon. Their message: Al Gore is one of us. The result: Gore's lead vanished because of a corresponding falloff of moderates. "I don't want Jesse Jackson in Oregon!" yelled a frustrated aide. Plans to dispatch the sister of Texas lynching victim James Byrd to Portland, Ore., along with NAACP head Kweisi Mfume, were called off in light of the polling data.
The biggest rap against Gore's message-makers was the candidate's failure to capitalize on the Clinton record of peace and prosperity. "We might have blown it," conceded a key aide. "We didn't remind people of how well off they are." Shrum and the others were bracing for this line of recrimination. Shrum told of a Midwestern senator hotly calling the Gore campaign to demand why Clinton had not been in his state. Shrum read him the president's low approval numbers among undecided voters there. "There'll be second-guessing," an aide said.
By the final weekend, the signs looked hopeful. The undecided vote had not broken for Bush, as some Gore handlers feared. There were some indications that Nader voters were drifting home. Greenberg and the others clung to the hope that the hoariest of Democratic causes--defending Social Security--would save Gore after all. The senior vote had been most disturbed by President Clinton's misbehavior and put off by Gore's exaggerations. Older women in particular found Gore's style to be grating. Yet in the last lap, Greenberg had hit on the idea of portraying Bush as a double-dealing politician, promising the same trillion dollars to young voters and the elderly. The message seemed to finally be getting through where it counted, with the aging voters of Florida and Pennsylvania. Or so Greenberg hoped.
Gore was running on fumes at the end. He popped lozenges and croaked out his stump speech, which had been boiled down to its bare essence: vote for me because the other guy will take away what you have. The last round-the-clock forced march began in the rain at dawn on Monday outside a factory gate in Waterloo, Iowa. Gore shook every hand and bounded onto a plane from St. Louis to Flint, Mich., and then through the night to Miami and Tampa. At a post-midnight rally on South Beach, 20,000 turned out to see the veep onstage with Ben Affleck, Glenn Close, Stevie Wonder and Robert De Niro. By the time Gore was drinking coffee with the nurses on the graveyard shift at a Tampa hospital at 4:30 a.m., even Tipper had gone to bed. By dawn he was standing on a forlorn plywood stage in a parking lot. It seemed to motivate Gore to think that his opponent was at that moment lying in bed. "It's 5:30 in the morning, Texas time, and George W. Bush is still asleep, and I'm still speaking to the people of Florida!" Said an aide with a sigh: "Gore believes that if you do enough push-ups, you can do anything."
The mood in the Bush camp was downright giddy as the candidate returned home to Texas Monday night. Champagne corks popped, staffers wore cowboy hats and danced on the plane. Rove was in an especially playful mood. For Bush's last rally, the piped-in music began with the old Clinton-Gore theme song from 1996, "Don't Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)." Suddenly, a needle was heard scratching across a record and the music changed to "Won't Get Fooled Again" by the Who. Bush was expansive and jolly, doing a Richard Nixon imitation ("You won't have me to kick around anymore") with reporters. Privately, aides said, the candidate predicted a big win and even talked of calling potential cabinet appointees in the morning. A NEWSWEEK reporter, watching Bush's confidence, remembered the night before the New Hampshire primary, when Bush whispered into his ear: "Write this down: I'm going to win by four." (He lost by 18.)
On the Gore campaign's press charter plane at 3 a.m., another reporter had stopped campaign chairman Bill Daley and asked how the Bush camp could be so confident. "It's f---ing bull----," said Daley. "That's their script. It has been since July." Daley was not wrong. At 7 a.m. on Election Day, another NEWSWEEK reporter was playing golf in Austin with Bush numbers guru Matthew Dowd, Candygrammer Dan Bartlett and messageman Ed Gillespie. The day before, Karl Rove had been so ebullient with the press pack that he had donned the balloon centerpiece in the middle of the table. The day before that, he had predicted Bush would win 320 electoral votes. As they golfed through a strange mix of sun and showers (an omen? they wondered), Bush's aides acknowledged that Rove's show was partly just that. "Americans love winners," said Bartlett. "If you give the impression you're a winner, people will move over and join the team. I can't believe it took the Gore people so long to figure that out." On the 18th hole, Dowd lofted a 250-yard drive that rolled inches shy of a water hazard. "That means we're going to win tonight," Bartlett said.
All across the nation, the polls were opening. At Boca West, an upscale retirement community in Boca Raton, Fla., Jack Hymowitz showed up for his job as a $90-a-day poll watcher, just as he had most election days for the past 15 years. A poll watcher's duties are usually not too onerous: keeping order in the lines of elderly voters waiting outside, making sure that campaign volunteers keep a discreet distance from the voting stalls where residents marked their ballots. But this year, Hymowitz noted, seemed different. Voters were shaking their heads as they walked out. They were gathering in small groups and talking. A few seemed quite agitated, gesturing and complaining loudly. Something about a confusing ballot.…