WASHINGTON — Hindsight is haunting supporters of would-be presidents George W. Bush and Al Gore as the nation awaits the results of the presidential drama.
As they watch the painstaking ballot counts and recounts in Florida, campaign activists and officials acknowledge that questions swirl through their heads about how the candidates could have widened the margin and averted the showdown.
With such minute gaps in the vote tallies in Florida and several other states, virtually anything could have made the difference, they say.
Questions whirling about the Bush campaign: Should the Texas governor have devoted more time to Florida earlier rather than put it in the sure-win column? Consultants and other activists widely say yes. Bush himself was known to roll his eyes at suggestions that he needed to struggle for a state governed by his brother, Jeb.
“We could be criticized maybe for not getting off the mark as quickly as we should have, but in the end Jeb was fully engaged,” said Tom Slade, a Republican National Committee member from Florida. “He was spending an awful lot of time doing his duties as governor four and five months out. I fall in the category of Republicans who were unfortunately overconfident.”
In addition, GOP pollster Frank Luntz said Bush should have stayed out on the campaign trail in the election’s final, precious days, rather than take a Sunday break in Texas.
“The only advice I would have given would have been to ask Bush, nine days out, not to take a day off,” he said, referring to the day off a week and a half before the Nov. 7 election.
Belated news of Bush’s 1976 arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol especially stands out as a distraction that might have been avoided, Republicans say.
“It came out and stunted his surge,” Luntz added. “Momentum was moving toward Bush after the last debate. Obviously, something turned this around at the very end.”
Some Gore supporters, meanwhile, mutter that the vice president had for too long ignored the threat of Green Party candidate Ralph Nader and confronted it too late, appealing to Nader voters for the first time at a a nighttime rally in Madison, Wis., just 12 days before Election Day.
Nader got 97,421 votes in Florida — and if even half of those had gone to Gore, the state, its 25 electoral votes and the White House might have, too. Exit polls suggested that nearly half the Nader voters would have voted for Gore if it had been a two-way race.
Like Bush in Florida, Gore appeared to take even his own home state of Tennessee for granted. Gore lost Tennessee and its 11 electoral votes to Bush.
And still being debated in Democratic circles was whether Gore underestimated President Clinton’s appeal, particularly in urban areas. Should he have put Clinton to better use in battleground states? Fearing the baggage of Clinton scandals, Gore studiously limited the president’s campaigning.
“It’s an unfortunate piece of the strategy,” Rev. B. Herbert Martin of Chicago’s Progressive Community Church. “Clinton could’ve added a lot of strength here. He’s a hero to African-Americans.”
Added Pennsylvania state Rep. T.J. Rooney, a key Gore activist: “I believe that there may have been a great role to play for the president, especially in communities where he demonstrated an uncanny ability to bring out voters — like Philadelphia and Detroit.”
On the other hand, Gore won Rooney’s battleground state, and the legislator acknowledged that those who believe Clinton and his scandals posed a real danger to Gore had a point.
Stuck in limbo, supporters were more eager to defend their candidates and give them the benefit of the doubt. Gore backers say they have little to complain about given his round-the-clock campaign schedule and special attention to Florida.
“People understand how hard Al Gore worked for this,” said Democratic consultant Marla Romash, who worked on the campaign.
Republican consultant Charlie Black, an outside adviser to Bush, denied that Bush wasted time swinging through traditionally Democratic West Coast states rather than spending it in battlegrounds like Florida.
“It made Gore spend time and money to compete for Oregon and Washington,” Black said.
Bush obviously should have spent more time in Florida early on, but “there is no point in nitpicking,” he added.