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It began eight years ago, in the rubble of a candidacy toppled by a third-party candidate and a charismatic Southern governor.
Al Gore '69, then a Tennessee senator who had toiled in Congress for 16 years, was launched into the national spotlight as vice president.
George W. Bush, who had vigorously worked for his father's campaign, was left embittered and returned to Texas to help run the Texas Rangers.
Gore would slowly inherit the mantle of President Clinton's anointed successor. Bush, after surprising then-incumbent Texas. Gov. Ann Richards in 1994, would slowly figure into Republican plans to recapture the White House.
And yesterday evening, the two players returned to the national scene in an epic electoral battle that pitted both men and their legacies against each other.
But in a drama worthy of the Bard, no winners emerged last night, as victory speeches and cheering crowds were left in the lurch and concession speeches were retracted. In the end, no man would emerge victorious, or at least on this night.
And so the fate of the nation hinges on a few thousand votes--even perhaps a few hundred--in a state better known for retirement communities and Disney World than changing the political fate of the nation.
Suddenly, the national electorate knows much more about Florida than it would probably care to know.
If Bush wins, the margin of Bush's victory will have been provided by this year's version of Ross Perot: Ralph Nader, the third party spoiler. He proved the difference in New Hampshire and potentially Wisconsin, and may yet prove to be the difference in Florida.
At the same time, it appeared that many voters who were inclined to cast their ballots for Nader--he had been polling near five percent in the national vote--changed their mind at the last minute.
Although the race was far from decided, critical momentum early in the night was in the Vice President's favor. Not long after 8 p.m., the networks awarded Florida--and its 25 electoral votes--to Gore.
At that time, Bush supporters expressed disappointment that Florida--which many felt Bush needed to win to reach 270 electoral votes--had been lost to Gore.
Pundits noted that while the Daley political machine had turned out the Democratic vote for Gore in Illinois, Bush's brother Jeb--the popular governor of Florida--could not deliver his own state to his brother.
The analysis turned out to be dead right. Bush needed Florida to win. But Gore had the state in his hands, and many surmised that by holding Pennsylvania and Michigan as well, his chances for the White House were strong.
But several hours later, this premise seemed based upon a false promise. Two hours later, all the networks had retracted Florida and returned it to the "too close to call" category.
Apparently, the news service that provides raw voting data for the networks to interpret had been too hasty in extrapolating the results. To complicate matters, a truck on its way to deliver ballots for counting had gotten lost.
Democratic National Committee Chair Ed Rendell said on the air that the party could not have been more disappointed.
And they had reason to be. If Gore carries Florida in the end, he will win the election.
Bush's decision to spend 24 of the last 48 hours of the campaign in Florida, then, in retrospect, seems a wise one.
Less wise, perhaps, was Gore's failure to enlist President Clinton to bring out the Democratic vote in Arkansas. Clinton ended up only spending one day stumping for Gore in his home state.
Gore paid for it, losing Arkansas by the slimmest of margins.
If Gore loses, the blame for his loss fall more directly on votes taken away by Green Party candidate Ralph Nader than on votes Clinton might have won.
Nader came up well short of the five percent mark nationally that would have brought the Green Party matching funds in future elections.
But assuming that most Nader voters would have cast ballots for Gore were Nader not in the race--as exit polls suggested--he will have did well enough in key states to throw the election to Bush, if Bush is ultimately declared victor in Florida.
In New Hampshire, where Bush was trounced by Sen. John S. McCain (R-Ariz.) in the primary season, Bush beat Gore, who had gotten significant help from Mass. campaigners, by a mere one percent. Nader took four percent of the statewide vote.
And in Wisconsin, Bush potentially edged Gore by an even smaller margin. Nader took a portion of the electorate that would have given Gore the edge.
Wisconsin was one of the two "elevens"--states with 11 electoral votes--that the Gore campaign had said they needed to win. Of the four
"elevens"--Missouri, Washington, Tennessee and Wisconsin--Gore seems to have only won Washington.
The fact that Gore was unable to win his own state was not only an embarrassment, but indicative of a larger problem. Not since Woodrow
Wilson has a candidate taken the White House without his home state.
With the race too close to call, pundits pointed to changes the campaigns could have made.
Gore's attempt to separate himself from Clinton, both by preventing him from campaigning and by underplaying the strong economy, was seen as a tactical error
Although the Democrats gained ground in the Senate and the House, they did not regain the much-vaunted majority that they had lost in the 1994 Gingrich revolution. Some attributed this to the fact that the party lacked a national theme.
But with 20 Republican seats up in 2002 as opposed to only 13 for their own party, Democrats saw the gains they made as progress to the next election. With key victories in New York, Missouri and Michigan, they are already looking to the future.
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