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Special Event

James Baker Holds News Conference in Tallahassee, Florida

Aired November 10, 2000 - 12:00 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

FRANK SESNO, CNN ANCHOR: As we continue our special coverage of the presidential election, it is still too close to call as you well know. And welcome to our international viewers. Hello everybody. From Washington, I'm Frank Sesno. Jeanne Meserve is in the field. She will joins us in just a few moments.

Well, as the nation observes the Veterans Day holiday, the battle for the presidency is being fought by campaign operatives and lawyers. George W. Bush's team says it is time for their opponents and for the rest of the world to recognize that this thing is over. Al Gore's lieutenants vow to push on, and carry out what they call "the will of the people."

All eyes are locked on the state of Florida, where an unofficial recount, reported by the Associated Press, shows Bush ahead of Gore by a scant 327 votes.

CNN national correspondent Mike Boettcher is in the capital of Tallahassee -- Mike.

MIKE BOETTCHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Frank, we're waiting for that press conference with Secretary James -- former Secretary of State James Baker, who is the appointee of the Bush campaign to oversee the election recount. He is supposed to be here any minute, and when this press conference begins, we will break away to it.

He has kept a rather low-key presence, although he has stated in past comments that he's here to oversee this, that he thinks that the state laws of Florida should be followed, and if the recount shows that Governor Bush does win this election, that this is over. We'll find out what he has to say now as the rhetoric has heated up somewhat. Although I have stumbled upon a couple of low-key contacts between former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who is the representative of the Gore campaign here, and senator -- I mean former Secretary Baker.

They met this morning at a coffee shop. It was intrepid reporting I found them because I was eating breakfast there too. They were all eating breakfast in the same place and had a brief talk. And they met yesterday as well.

And I'm told that it is kind of a back channel communications being set up between the two campaigns. And these two former distinguished secretaries of state, who know each other well, have talked to each other. The only way their conversations were characterized to me was that everybody said the right thing. So we'll find out what Secretary Baker says here.

Now we're awaiting on three things here today. The official vote tally from the state of Florida and frankly that's not going far today. They have basically Shutdown operations. This is a state holiday here, Veterans Day in Florida. And so that won't be carried on very far today. it doesn't look like.

Also we contacted the various counties who have not reported in; as of last night, there were 14. We've called a few of those, and they are not answering their phones today. So they are on holiday as well.

We're also following the progress of the manual vote count, which is happening in a handful of counties. That is in the initial stages, if some of these counties won't begin that today. But the manual vote count is the other count, which could change the official count, which is due on Tuesday.

Third thing we're looking at, the overseas ballots. Now the county we're in now, here in Tallahassee, they received about 130 overseas ballots in the last two days. And this is from a county that doesn't have that many military personnel here. You go to a place like Pensacola, where there are a lot of military personnel, that vote is going to be much higher.

Looking at historical precedence, in 1996, there were 2300 overseas ballots cast after the election, then, in that 10-day period, and that's when the overseas ballots can be received and counted; 54 percent of those went for Mr. Dole, the rest, about 45 percent went for President Clinton. So the Republicans are talking about historical precedent here that those overseas ballot should not change the vote total -- Frank.

SESNO: Mike, if I could just jump in here. I want to tell you and our viewers, we are waiting momentarily for Secretary of State James Baker. We have actually been given something of warning to wait for him.

But on those overseas ballots, Mike, do they get counted, do you know, all at the end? have they been factored into these numbers that we keep hearing and seeing now?

BOETTCHER: That's an interesting point, Frank, because those overseas ballots were sent out. They could be sent out 35 days previous to the election. And the ballots that were received before Tuesday or on Tuesday the election -- the election day have already been counted.

Let's go now to Secretary of State Baker.

SESNO: I am sorry, Mike, let me interrupt you. You are right now because we are about the hear Secretary of State James Baker for the Bush campaign.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

JAMES BAKER, OBSERVER FOR BUSH CAMPAIGN: Governor George W. Bush won 31 states with a total of 271 electoral votes. The vote here in Florida was very close, but when it was counted Governor Bush was the winner. Now, three days later, the vote in Florida has been recounted. Over two-thirds of the state election supervisors overseeing that recount are Democrats. At the end of this recount, Governor Bush is still the winner, subject only to counting the overseas ballots, which traditionally have favored the Republican candidates. No evidence of vote fraud, either in the original vote or in the recount, has been presented.

Now, the Gore campaign is calling for yet another recount in selective and predominantly Democratic counties where there were large unexplained vote swings in their favor in the recount. It appears that the Gore campaign is attempting to unduly prolong the country's national presidential through endless challenges to the results of the vote here in Florida.

Furthermore, the more often ballots are recounted, especially by hand, the more likely it is that human errors, like lost ballots and other risks, will be introduced. This frustrates the very reason why we have moved from hand counting to machine counting.

Let me say a word specifically about the Palm Beach ballot. There's a rule of law to be followed in all elections. The state of Florida has established legal procedures to design, approve, publish, and if need be to protest ballots before the election. The ballot was designed by a Democratic elections supervisor. She approved it.

The Democratic Party did not question it before the election. This butterfly-type ballot was used in recent elections in the same county and under the same rules and, again, the Democrats did not complain.

The overwhelming majority of voters who used the ballot in this election understood it and they cast valid votes.

Our lawyers have confirmed the legality of this ballot. And we have with us here today relevant copies -- copies of the relevant Florida statutes if you would like to have them.

The Gore campaign has also tried to make a lot of the fact that double-marked ballots are not counted. A key principle in American elections is one person, one vote. If we have ballots with two votes, of course we can't count them, and of course we can't guess about them.

Ballots that are double-marked can't be evidence of the voter's intent to vote one way or the other. No jurisdiction in the United States of America would accept such a ballot as a valid vote, and Florida law specifically does not. This happens in every precinct and in every election.

And the procedure is very clear. Those ballots have to be disregarded. We understand -- and let me say that I understand personally, because I've been involved in them, that it is frustrating to lose an election by a narrow margin, but it happens. And it happened to the Republican presidential candidates in 1960 and in 1976. Both Vice President Nixon and President Ford put the country's interests first. They accepted the vote for the good of the country.

It is important, ladies and gentlemen, that there be some finality to the election process. What if we insisted on recounts in other states that today are very, very close -- for example, in Wisconsin, or in Iowa, or, if we should happen to lose it, in New Mexico.

Let the country step back for a minute and pause and think about what's at stake here. This may be the last chance to do that. There is no reasonable end to this process if it slips away.

The purpose of our national election is to establish a constitutional government, not unending legal wrangling.

We will, therefore, vigorously oppose the Gore campaign's efforts to keep recounting, over and over, until it happens to like the result. For the good of the country, and for the sake of our standing in the world, the campaigning should end and the business of an orderly transition should begin.

Wolf?

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, are you saying that Vice President Gore should concede before next Friday's official count here in Florida ends?

BAKER: I didn't say that, Wolf, but let me -- let me say that I am drawn back to the memory of 1960. I'm particularly drawn back to the memory of 1976 when I was in the room, and many, many people were arguing to President Ford that he should insist upon a recount, because he was only some 7,000 votes or so down in Ohio, and the change of a few votes would have tipped the election. And he said, "No." He said, "That's not what would be good for the country."

What I am saying here is that Florida has voted twice; Governor Bush won the first vote. We have had a transparent and fair and orderly recount, and he has won that. And there have been no challenges, by way of vote fraud or otherwise in the recount.

And I think that it is very responsible of Governor Bush, if I can put it this way, to say, there needs to be some closure at some point. He is not saying today that he has won this election, because he acknowledges that the overseas ballots have to be counted, because they have not yet been counted.

But to suggest that we should keep counting ballots that have been counted once, and even twice, over and over again, I think is not a fair position to take, nor a responsible position to take. And it would be my hope that the candidate of the other party would acknowledge that. Yes, sir?

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

BAKER: No, I haven't said that we would challenge, nor have I said that we would not challenge. What I've done is use that as an example of the kind of endless wrangling and procedures and legal maneuvering that we can get into, if we keep going down the path we are currently on, as a consequence of the Gore campaign insisting -- asking for recount after recount after recount.

And what I'm saying further is that that will destroy, in my opinion, the traditional process for selecting our presidents in this country, which happens, in my view, to be one of the strengths of American democracy.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: Mr. Baker, how long a time is too long a time to wait for a result here?

BAKER: The law of Florida requires that with respect to the overseas ballots, we wait until they can legally be counted. They have not been counted.

But except for that, the responsible and fair and legally I think sufficient and correct position to take would be for us to acknowledge that if we keep going down the path we're on, if we keep being put in the position of having to respond to recount after recount after recount of the same ballots, then we just can't sit on our hands and we will be forced to do what might be in our best personal interest, but not -- it would not be in the best interests of our wonderful country.

And what's happening now, if I may say so, is not in the best interests of our country. And there's a way -- and there's a way to stop that. There's a way to bring this thing back before it spirals totally out of control. And bring it back to -- bring it back to rationality and to finality. And that's the responsible position, I think, that it would be my hope that both candidates could take.

Governor Bush has made it very clear that he participated in an open, transparent recount. He's willing to await the judgment of these overseas ballots because they've never been counted. But as far as continuing to play this game of unending wrangling and recount after recount after recount, that's just not something that we can do.

(CROSSTALK)

BAKER: Yes?

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

BAKER: Well, we are more than two months away from the Inauguration. But I would almost bet you that in many foreign countries, they're having a lot of difficulty understanding exactly what's going on here, and why, particularly given the tradition, the way we've traditionally handled these close elections in the United States where the losing party puts the nation's interests first, they're probably going to have some difficulty understanding what's happening here.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

BAKER: I'm making the assertion that Governor Bush won the recount. You all know what the numbers are. I'm also...

(CROSSTALK)

Wait a minute, just a minute. Do you want an answer or do you want to make a speech?

Let me say this. What I'm saying is, we know why the certifications have been delayed from these very same counties where we have these large, unexplained shifts toward the other campaign. If the purpose here is delay and endless wrangling and recount after recount after recount, that game can be played, but that's not the way -- that's not the road we ought to go down, that's what I'm saying.

(CROSSTALK)

BAKER: Well, wait a minute.

QUESTION: Secretary Baker, the reason some of those ballots were not counted on Election Day and again on the recount is because there was no hole punched. There are reports that some ballots have pencil markings. Some voters were a little confused and circled the candidate's name rather than do a hole punch. Does the Bush campaign believe those votes should not be counted?

BAKER: Well, let me refer you to the lawyer, the Florida lawyers on that. If the law of Florida is that in order to vote a machine ballot you have to punch a hole, and that isn't done, then those votes are not going to be counted. That's all I can tell you.

Yes? One more question. Right here.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary?

BAKER: Yes?

QUESTION: Is Governor Bush concerned that because of the slim margin and there are so many questions about this vote that he might be seen as not waiting long enough to ensure that all Americans -- Floridians have voted and that their votes are counted?

BAKER: Well, all Floridians have voted and their votes have not only been counted, they've been counted twice, except for the overseas ballot. That's, I think, beyond dispute. Nobody's going to dispute that. Double-marked ballots haven't been counted, but there's no jurisdiction in the United States where we count double-marked ballots.

Thank you very much.

SESNO: Former Secretary of State James Baker, speaking on behalf of the campaign of George W. Bush, issuing a clear warning shot, a clear warning to the campaign and the camp of Al Gore. Saying that if there are endless challenges here, that the -- that the Bush campaign will be virtually forced to respond in kind. In Baker's word, "There is a way to bring this out before it spirals out of control," he said, "to bring it back to responsibility and finality," taking specific aim at the Gore campaign's efforts and requests to have more than one recount in some of the disputed counties. That says Baker is not the way the nation should be going. He made a particular point of citing 1960 and 1976, when there were close, close elections. In 1976, he was in the room, he said, when Gerald Ford said: No, I don't want a recount in a hotly disputed place where there was -- state where there were only 7,000 votes separating us. It's not good for the country. Let's get on with this thing, and then he conceded. All but calling on Al Gore to do that.

Let's go with Jonathan Karl, who has been tracking the Gore campaign and to Jeanne Meserve, who is with the Bush campaign.

First, John Karl, clearly there is no response yet, but there was sort of a preemptive statement issued earlier in the day from the Bush folks.

JONATHAN KARL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And actually there is a response, Frank. Towards the tail end of James Baker's press conference, I got on the phone with one of the vice president's top advisers on this matter. And really a point of defiance here coming from the vice president's camp, not officially, this is privately, this is one of his top advisers saying that the Gore campaign is -- that the Bush campaign is desperate here to stop a process because they believe, in this adviser's words, that the longer this process goes on, the more scrutiny there is on the vote in Florida, the less chance there is that George W. Bush will become president.

He believes that's why Baker is coming out, why you saw the statement from Karen Hughes at 5:30 this morning saying that this is essentially over.

What he is saying is: Look, there are serious issues that need to be looked to in Palm Beach County, there are serious issues that need to be examined in this election. And they believe that the moral high ground is still with Vice President Gore on this.

Now that said, the Gore campaign top advisers have, all along today, been acknowledging that they are concerned about some of what they've been seeing out there. You know, they have been criticized very strongly by the "Washington Post" and the "New York Times" editorial boards, two friendly editorial boards, warning the vice president not to drag out this process or raise questions about the legitimacy of this process.

So that's where we stand now. Some defiance coming out of the Gore camp still, and saying that the Bush camp is really trying to steam roll this. That is another word they keep using.

Over to Jeanne Meserve. Jeanne, coming from a man of this stature, James Baker, who has been working so closely with George W. Bush. Baker, former secretary of state; Baker, former chief of staff; Baker, who worked on the campaign of George Bush Senior. Let me just quote some of the words he said here: "Let the country step back and pause and think about what's at stake here. This may be the last chance to do this. There's no end to this process if it slips away."

What's he talking about?

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I think here we saw James Baker the diplomat in full force. He was reaching out, not just to the Gore campaign, but the American public, saying: Hey, look is what is at stake here. This is our American process of democracy. Let's respect the integrity of the process. But at the same time, he was delivering another message to the Gore campaign, which is: We will fight if we will have to.

And he reemphasized some points that have been made the last several days by Bush campaign officials, questioning just how serious those ballot problems in Florida are. You heard him say: Hey, double punched ballots, it happens, they are always thrown out. He said: Hey, that ballot wasn't all that confusing. This is a kind of format that has been used before, and legally we have now established this is just fine.

So it was a double-barreled approach here, I felt. On the one hand, trying to appeal to the better natures and statesmanlike aspects of the Gore campaign; but, on the other hand, there was a velvet fist there -- Frank.

SESNO: Jeanne, let's stay with this for just a minute. And John Karl, I want to come back to you in a moment too. But first, Jeanne, to the extent that anybody in that campaign is talking about other places that they might challenge the vote count, what are they saying?

MESERVE: This morning there was no update. You heard yesterday, Karl Rove and Don Evans and Karen Hughes' press conference in which they talked about specifically Iowa and Wisconsin where the vote is very tight, and where they suggested that additional ballots coming in and being counted could require a recount or could lead them to request for a recount. However, no movement on that front today.

My guess is, Frank, that they are waiting to see what the Gore camp is going to do. And they also wanted to see the final results of the Florida vote count.

I did ask them also this morning about absentee ballots, which coming out -- coming in other states like Washington and California, ballots which they suggested yesterday could increase their vote tally in those states. They had no update for me on that -- Frank.

SESNO: All right, to both of you now, and very quickly if we may because we need to move on to some other topics, but there have been warnings that the longer this goes on, the more bitter the mood and the attitudes between the two camps and the more serious it becomes for the country. Are you both hearing a change in tone privately from people within the campaigns, John Karl, why don't you go first with that?

KARL: Well, the vice president's top advisers that I have spoken to acknowledge that that is a concern. Acknowledge that they agree actually with some of the criticism coming from places like the "Washington Post" and from the "New York Times" that hey, you this process needs to be quick, but it needs to be thorough. So it is a question of your definition of quick.

The way they put this is that you -- a middle ground here between Karen Hughes saying it is over now essentially, and dragging it out until the inauguration. They say there is a middle ground, and they are sensitive to that fact.

SESNO: Jeanne.

MESERVE: Frank, I think we heard the bitterness very publicly yesterday from the Bush camp. If you listened to that press conference yesterday, when it got to point where Karl Rove was waving a ballot from Cook County, and saying: Mr. Daley, who are you to complain about this kind of ballot setup? I mean, I think that clearly displayed the bitterness.

I think what they are trying to do today is step back from that, trying to be more cautious, trying to be more statesmanlike, hoping perhaps that there can be some sort of reconciliation here, some settlement -- Frank.

SESNO: A clear warning from former Secretary of State James Baker. John Karl, Jeanne Meserve, thanks to you both very much.

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