Democratic leaders support vice president's final appeal

By Glen Johnson, Globe Staff, 12/5/2000

espite a devastating setback in a Tallahassee court, Al Gore's congressional allies stood behind him yesterday, though they agreed that time and hope are running short and one openly doubted the vice president would prevail in his election challenge.

''I think the Florida Supreme Court will dispatch it against him fairly quickly,'' said US Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts.

Speaking after Gore said he would appeal a Florida circuit court ruling against his request for more recounts, Frank added: ''It's certainly reasonable to appeal it, but I'm not, from the Gore standpoint, optimistic.''

Meanwhile, optimism reigned in the Bush camp. After the US Supreme Court earlier in the day put on hold a Florida Supreme Court decision extending the deadline for recounts, Bush took to calling his running mate, Dick Cheney, the ''vice president'' - although aides said Bush continued to prefer being called ''governor.''

Gore's advisers said the court rulings were no surprise, but they made it clear their appeal to the Florida Supreme Court would be the campaign's last resort.

''There's a sense internally and in the larger orbit that this thing was always going to the Florida Supreme Court,'' said one top Gore adviser. ''We weren't anticipating a clear victory regardless. We were anticipating a decision in the Florida Supreme Court.''

Democrats in the House and Senate appeared to take their cue from their leaders, Senator Thomas A. Daschle of South Dakota and US Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri.

In a joint statement, they said: ''We are united in our support of the decision to appeal the ruling to the Florida Supreme Court. We believe this appeal is in keeping with Florida law and American democracy. ... There is still enough time to count all the votes.''

The members of the all-Democratic Massachusetts delegation unanimously agreed, with Senator Edward M. Kennedy saying in a statement: ''I continue to believe that Vice President Gore has a strong case on the merits, and he has every right to appeal this decision to the Florida Supreme Court.''

Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, that sentiment was echoed by the conservative Democrats who would be most likely to break ranks with the administration.

''I've always said that the final arbiter would be the Florida Supreme Court,'' said US Representative John S. Tanner, Democrat of Tennessee. Despite complaints about the now monthlong dispute, Tanner said, ''I don't see where a month makes a whole lot of difference.''

The Gore team reveled in the continued support, despite the Florida court decision and the US Supreme Court ruling. In addition to vacating the judgment allowing the recounts, the nation's highest court asked the Florida Supreme Court to clarify the reasons for making its decision.

''Democrats are supporting Al Gore for the same reason Al Gore is focused on this issue, because there are important principles at stake. They believe that counting votes and not disenfranchising voters is a bedrock principle for our country,'' said Gore spokesman Chris Lehane.

Gore's running mate, Joseph I. Lieberman, and his campaign manager, William Daley, received continued expression of support during a conference call with congressional Democrats, Lehane said. Lieberman was headed to Capitol Hill today to speak at meetings of the House and Senate Democratic delegations.

Speaking in Austin, Texas, Bush said he was sending ''the vice president'' to speak at similar meetings of the Republican delegations in the House and Senate.

While Cheney on Sunday said it was time for Gore to concede, Bush said he would not make the same comment himself.

''I do believe I have won this election,'' Bush said at the governor's mansion before he received visiting Governor Bill Owens of Colorado. ''I believe that I won it on the first count and on the second count and on the third count.

''But the vice president's going to have to make the decisions that he thinks are necessary. And I know that he'll put - the interests of the country will be important in his decision-making, just like it would be in mine.''

The Texas governor said he was grateful for and ''comforted'' by the US Supreme Court ruling, an adjective used four times by his chief spokeswoman during a news conference following the circuit court decision.

Speaking of Leon County Circuit Court Judge N. Sanders Sauls, Bush spokeswoman Karen P. Hughes said: ''He had two full days of hearings. And I think that was very comforting to all of us to feel that he had reviewed everything and again found no credible evidence to suggest that any additional counting would produce any different results than the results we've already seen.''

US Representative J. Joseph Moakley, the dean of the Massachusetts delegation, said: ''I'm still with Gore.... I think that Gore, being a political animal, having put all your life into the thing, and feeling you still have the votes to win it, to pull out now would be a disservice not only to yourself but for everybody who voted for you.''

Another Massachusetts Democrat, US Representative Martin T. Meehan, conceded Gore faced an uphill fight politically, but said ''the Bush team has had a political advantage since John Ellis called this race for Bush on Fox News.'' (Ellis, the Fox News election analyst, is Bush's cousin.)

US Representative James McGovern, Democrat from Worcester, said he agreed that Gore should appeal, but was not sure there would be enough time to complete the recounts even if they were ordered.

Sue Kirchoff of the Globe Staff contributed to this report from Washington.