Sunday, December 10, 2000

Portman again steps up for Bush

He returns to Fla. as GOP spokesman of day

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        U.S. Rep. Rob Portman had planned to spend the weekend at home with his family in Terrace Park, but he hadn't figured on the Florida Supreme Court rearranging his schedule.

        Saturday, the Republican congressman found himself in Tallahassee, Fla., in the midst of the most extraordinary presidential election contest in 125 years, racing from one network TV appearance to another in his role as George W. Bush's chief “spin doctor” this weekend.

        In addition to his media duties for talk shows, Mr. Portman was in the counting room at the Leon County Public Library Saturday afternoon, acting as an observer for the Bush campaign, when word came down that the U.S. Supreme Court had issued a stay stopping the hand count.

        Mr. Portman said the county employees handling the ballots finished the precinct they were working on and stopped after having counted about one-third of undervotes from Miami-Dade County.

        At that point, Mr. Portman said, the Bush campaign had picked up 92 votes, while Mr. Gore picked up 50.

        “They were using a much more stringent standard here today than they had used in Broward and Palm Beach counties,” Mr. Portman said. “The standard (in Leon County) was "clear intent of the voter,' no dimples.”

        Mr. Portman, who had previously observed both the Broward and Palm Beach hand counts, said that if the standard used Saturday had been applied in those cases, “there's no way Gore would have ended up with as many votes as he did.”

        The hand count in those two counties reduced Mr. Bush's lead over Mr. Gore to 537 votes from more than 900.

        Mr. Portman said the U.S. Supreme Court's halting of the ballot count was “very encouraging, and it might mean the end of something that never should have happened in the first place.”

        After a marathon of live TV appearances Saturday morning on CNN, Fox News Network, MSNBC and NBC's Today show, where he laid out the Bush campaign's objections to a hand count of disputed ballots, Mr. Portman admitted: “I'm working on about four hours' sleep.”

        Mr. Portman, who has popped in and out of Florida in the weeks since the presidential election, finished his work on Capitol Hill Friday afternoon, caught a flight back to Cincinnati and was pulling into the driveway of his home in Terrace Park when Bush campaign officials in Austin, Texas, called and asked him to come to Tallahassee immediately.

        “I turned around, went back to the airport, and here I am,” Mr. Portman said.

        He arrived in the Florida capital about 11 p.m. Friday and went into several hours of meetings, where he found the Bush legal and political teams in a state of shock over the 4-3 decision of the Florida Supreme Court, which ordered a hurried count of thousands of ballots.

        “Our people were stunned, but I think the Gore people were just as stunned,” Mr. Portman said.

        “What makes this so distressing is that these four (Florida Supreme Court) justices are so out of step with everybody else in this case,” Mr. Portman said. “They are not only out of step with the legislature and the executive in Florida, but with the judicial system in Florida. This decision comes out of left field.”

        Mr. Portman has long and deep ties to the Bush family. In the late 1980s, he worked in the administration of President George Bush as the White House legislative liaison.

        This year, he was a high-profile surrogate for the Texas governor on the campaign trail.

        Before the vice presidential debate, he helped Mr. Bush's running mate, Dick Cheney, prepare by playing Joseph Lieberman in a series of mock debates; and he played the role of Mr. Gore in a preparation session before the final presidential debate.


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