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Former Secretary of State James Baker Holds News Briefing in Tallahassee, Florida

Aired November 14, 2000 - 11:00 a.m. ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Right now we want to go right live to Tallahassee, where former Secretary of State James Baker is about to speak. He is there in Florida on behalf of the Bush campaign. Let's listen.


JAMES BAKER, OBSERVER FOR BUSH CAMPAIGN: ... In earlier statements, we've emphasized the importance of achieving some finality to the election process, not just here in Florida, but, of course, for the nation as a whole. More and more, we see uncertainty in financial markets and we see uncertainty abroad.

I believe that most observers, whether at home or abroad, are troubled by the prospect of seemingly endless counts and recounts until a candidate achieves the result he seeks. The vote in Florida was counted, and then it was recounted. Governor Bush was the winner of the vote. He was the winner of the recount. There have been no allegations of vote fraud either in the count or in the recount. No fraud, just confusion of some individuals.

Yet the Gore campaign refuses to accept the result. Instead, they have proceeded with demands for manual recounts in predominately Democratic counties. Their selective application of the manual recount provision targeted counties to try to reverse the result of the election.

Consider, for example, if you will, the three Broward County precincts selected by the Gore campaign for their test count. Precinct 1-F: 1,308 votes for Vice President Gore, 62 votes for Governor Bush. Precinct 6-F: 1,175 votes for Vice President Gore, 52 votes for Governor Bush. Precinct 6-C: 1,071 votes for Vice President Gore, 19 votes for Governor Bush.

This might lead someone to suspect that the Gore campaign was more focused on selectivity than on fairness. Even so, they only picked up four votes through this test manual recount, and the county canvassing board decided not to expand this third vote count to all of Broward County.

Now, having talked for days about letting the local officials act on recounts, the Gore campaign is trying to force Broward County officials to count yet again. Yesterday, the secretary of state of Florida reiterated that Florida law unambiguously requires every county canvassing board to certify its election returns by 5 p.m. today.

The Gore campaign, which placed great weight on Florida law, when it thought that the provisions of Florida law served its tactics, does not like this Florida law, so they filed suit to block the application of the statute, and that case is working its way now through the courts.

In sum, the Gore campaign has been unwilling to accept any finality after the vote, after the recount, after the manual recount tests in selective, favorable counties, or even after larger selective manual recounts within the time prescribed by Florida statute.

Indeed, the manual recount in Palm Beach County is at least the fourth count -- the fourth count -- of these very same votes, because the county also undertook a third machine count.

The American people want the parties to find a way to bring this election to an end. Therefore, we make the following proposal to the Gore campaign: Both sides should agree to accept the vote count of all the counties at the statutory deadline today, 5 p.m. In addition, both sides should agree to accept the overseas absentee ballots as of midnight Friday, in accordance with the law.

We have objected to the manual recount in Florida. The Gore campaign has objected to the statutory deadline in Florida. We are offering to accept the manual recount up to the time of the statutory deadline, if the Gore campaign will accept that deadline.

If the Gore campaign accepts this proposal and drops its litigation, we will dismiss our lawsuit. And then, ladies and gentlemen, the courts will not decide this election.

Many people around the country have urged both candidates to reach out to one another with a fair proposal to resolve this very divisive and unfortunate process. We are doing just that.

We have had counts, we have had multiple counts, we've had multiple recounts and selective manual counts. Ladies and gentlemen, it is time to bring this to a close. And we sincerely hope that this proposal will enable us to do so.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary?

BAKER: Yes, sir?

QUESTION: I don't want to speak for the Gore campaign, but it seems to me that on the face of this, this compromise, if that's what it is, might be unacceptable to them, because it locks in election results, which would presumably give Governor Bush the victory in Florida and thus the presidency.

BAKER: How can you say that it locks in election results that would give Governor Bush the victory here in Florida? He's ahead by 380 votes, and there are any number of absentee votes -- overseas absentee votes that will have to be counted on Friday. There's no assurance that he will win those votes. Traditionally, they have favored the Republican candidate and we should say that; I've already said that. But there is absolutely no assurance.

And so if you're suggesting that we take no risk by this proposal, I would argue with that rather strongly.

Furthermore, if you've interpreted the proposal correctly, you understand that we are willing to accept the diminution in our vote by virtue of the manual counts that will have been concluded by 5 p.m. this afternoon. And when you take those votes away from 388 votes, we go into the overseas absentee balloting hopefully with still a very, very narrow lead, but it would be an extraordinarily narrow lead.

So I think for them to reject it just on the grounds that it locks in a victory for us is simply not right.

QUESTION: The other compromise that's been suggested is that both sides agree to accept manual recounts across the state of Florida and agree that those results would be determinative of this election. Do you reject that possible compromise?

BAKER: I reject that categorically, and let me explain why. It took 15 hours to count four precincts in Palm Beach County. There are 6,000 precincts in the state of Florida. It would take an inordinate amount of time to count 6,000 precincts manually.

Furthermore, we have made very clear since we've been here our problem with the fundamentally flawed process of manual counting here, how it promote -- how it could lead to human error or even mischief. Those concerns are well-known.

But if you look at 6,000 counties, you talk about 15 hours to count four counties, this could very well back us up right smack up, if not beyond, the December 18 date of the meeting of the Electoral College. And, clearly, that's not acceptable, not just to us, but to the American people, I would venture.



QUESTION: Why do you think they would be interested in this? This is essentially the same offer you made the other day.

BAKER: No, it's not the same offer I made the other day. Don't misunderstand that.

QUESTION: How is it different?

BAKER: It's different in the sense that we are wiling to accept the manual recount votes that will have taken place by 5 p.m. today. And we've already lost over 50 or so votes. We're ahead by 388; we've already lost 50. We would probably, perhaps, maybe, who knows -- maybe we'll gain some, we might lose some more. It is not the same proposal. It is a very -- I hope you will look at it on its merits.

QUESTION: You brought up the markets, as well. Are you concerned that, A, there is an erosion of public support of the United States; or, B, this is extending into the financial markets and, you know, perpetuating your concerns earlier this week about the international arena?

BAKER: You're darn right I'm concerned about what's happening in international markets, and I think we ought to all be concerned.

And there ought to be some -- you know, in every election, you have to balance, I think, the interests in making sure you have a recount if necessary, to make certain that the result is accurate and fair. We've had all those. But you've got to balance that against the interest of finality.

Why are the markets disturbed? Because they don't see any finality here. Why are some of our friends and indeed probably some of our adversaries overseas looking on this with great interest, on the one hand, and apprehension on the other? Because they don't see any end to this process.

And you all out there don't see any end to it either. Nobody can come up right now and say, "Here's how it's going to end; here's when it's going to end." And we're making a proposal here that we think is very fair. And it should not be rejected out of hand.

The idea that you're going to have a manual recount of all of the state of Florida is crazy. All that would do is increase the uncertainty and increase the lack of any assurance that there would indeed be finality.

Now, I'll take one more question, and then I've got to run.



BAKER: I'm sorry, even a small what?


BAKER: We have no assurance of that.


BAKER: Well, one reason they should accept the proposal is that it would be a compromise that both campaigns have entered into in good faith. It would take this process out of the courts, for one thing. And it would give some degree of finality to the process.

And it doesn't automatically -- it doesn't constitute an automatic lock-in of a victory for us. They don't have to accept it. They can't -- you know, we can't make them accept it. They may keep asking for recount after recount after recount. But when is it going to end? I ask you, when is it going to end? Are we going to back it up to the Electoral College? Is that what they have in mind here, that maybe we'd get to December 18 and there wouldn't be any certification of Florida's electors?

There are all sorts of crazy scenarios out there. I hope that's not what they have in mind.

We do see what's happening in terms of the uncertainty out there, both here and abroad. And this is, I think, a forthcoming proposal. I hope they'll give it serious consideration.

Thank you very much.

KAGAN: We've been listening to former Secretary of State James Baker, as he speaks to the country and to world and mainly to the Gore camp from Tallahassee, Florida, saying enough is enough with the indecision in this election, and especially in the state of Florida. Offering up this deal to the Gore campaign and to Vice President Al Gore from George W. Bush.

And this is the deal that they put on the table. Basically, that the Bush camp would accept the vote count, including the manual recount, as it is done up until 5:00 p.m. today, also the overseas ballot counting that would have until Friday, accept that final tally. And in return from that, the Republicans and the Bush camp would drop any lawsuits they have in the courts right now.

James Baker pointing out that would not be in his mind an automatic victory for George W. Bush because, as he points out, the margin of victory right now still relatively small at 388 votes.

We have our John Karl standing by in Washington, D.C., who has been covering the Gore camp and the Gore campaign for us.

Jonathan, I understand you already have a response from the Gore camp.

JONATHAN KARL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the Gore campaign is still putting together its official response here. But I talked to one of the vice president's top aides, and the adjective here was "ridiculous." Essentially, what they are saying is that Baker has offered here exactly what the secretary of state for Florida, Katherine Harris, has offered, which is basically all counting, all voting final by today at 5:00, except for those absentee ballots, which will come in one Friday. This is exactly the offer that they are going to court in Leon County right now trying to block. This is, the Gore campaign does not believe, a serious offer. It is not a serious compromise. In fact, they don't think it is a compromise whatsoever because they believe that the -- that the Bush campaign is already losing its effort to completely block the hand counting. That was the court case -- the federal court case in Miami.

So the Gore campaign clearly not impressed with what James Baker has just offered there. KAGAN: Gore campaign might not be, but many Americans might be. In fact, you might say that this was a good PR move by the Bush camp. The Gore campaign has to come up with something because the Bush camp can at least come out now and say: Hey, we know Americans are sick of this and we tried to come up with a settlement. It is the Gore people who aren't going along.

KARL: Well, that's exactly right. What you have coming out of the Bush campaign now is they are putting an exact deadline on this. And we've seen from most public opinion polls, Americans have a little bit of patience with this process, but they do want to see an end in sight.

And what you have not heard from the Gore campaign yet is when exactly this would end. Warren Christopher has been out there saying that this should be a process that goes on for days, not weeks, not months, but just for days. But he has not been saying that we are willing to see a final deadline for when all the counting should be done, and its decision should be finalized.

In fact, from the vice president himself yesterday, the line was, this should be done quickly, but more important than timeliness here, is getting the count right. That's been the line from the Gore campaign.

Now we have this gambit coming out of the Bush campaign where they are putting an exact deadline, and a deadline that many Americans are looking for.

KAGAN: Jonathan, I want you to stand by right there. We are getting word now that in Palm Beach County, a third judge -- a third judge has now recused himself. So that would be two male judges, one female judge that have all recused themselves from looking in that lawsuit that Democrats are trying to bring, trying to force the recount there in Palm Beach County.

Getting back to this proposal now by James Baker. He is making the point that this would not be a slam dunk automatic victory by George W. Bush, pointing out that that margin of victory right now is slim, 388 votes, and that in fact the Bush camp is itself taking a gamble that the recount and that -- because they are losing some votes in the recount, and also the overseas ballots, not a slam dunk, maybe the Gore camp could make up the difference of 388 votes, in which case the Bush camp would have agreed that Al Gore would be the victor.

KARL: Well, the official line here out of the Gore campaign is that this is not a matter of winning or losing, this is a matter of the process, this is a matter of ensuring a full and fair count. So that is kind of beside the point. That's the official line.

Of course, there is a political context here, which is the Bush campaign knows, and in fact they've been saying for some time, that overseas ballots tend to favor Republican candidates. They favored Bob Dole in 1996. The Bush campaign fully expects that when those overseas ballots come in on Friday they will favor George W. Bush.

So in fact, it is not much of a risk coming out of Austin, coming out of the Bush campaign.

But the Gore campaign, on the other side, also fully expects that if you went ahead with the thorough hand recounts in these predominantly Democratic counties, that they would get extra votes, quite possibly enough votes to put them over the top.

So both sides clearly trying to take the high ground, in terms of the rhetoric, but also pursuing strategies that would help in terms of getting that final count in their favor.

KAGAN: And as you reported, we are still waiting for the official response from the Gore campaign. But safe to say right now, it does not look like we have a deal to end this thing in the state of Florida.

KARL: Very safe to say.

KAGAN: Jonathan Karl, in Washington, D.C., thank you very much.

Now with more from the Bush camp, here's Kyra.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: That's right. With reaction to what Jonathan had to say, we are going to go to Austin, Texas, where Jeanne Meserve is standing outside the Governor's mansion there.

And Jeanne, any word yet from them on how they will respond, and if they have indeed responded, to what Jonathan just told us, that the Gore camp feels this is not a fair offer and will not accept it?

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Kyra, I wish I had more to tell you. I was just getting a phone call from the Bush people, when I was told I had to talk to you. So I am afraid I cannot tell you what the response to that is going to be.

I think you heard from former Secretary of State Baker the basic reasons why they are going ahead with this. They feel there has to be some resolution to this situation. They believe it's having implications overseas, implications in the financial markets. That it's creating a great deal of uncertainty among the American people. And it is time to get this over with.

And Secretary Baker seems to feels what they put on the table here was a fair offer. They are giving up their objection to the hand recounts, and saying you give up the election to that 5:00 p.m. deadline. And we all wait to see what the overseas ballots hold.

Clearly there are a host of considerations that went into making this offer, some of them political, some of them I am sure were legal, and a lot of them had to do with public relations. If the American public is indeed as fed up with the ongoing argument over ballots and what to count and what not to count, perhaps the Bush campaign looks like it is on a higher ground here by offering what appears to be a reasonable compromise -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Jeanne, you said you were just on the phone with the Bush camp. Did you get anything from them at all. I apologize we came to you so quickly.

MESERVE: Essentially no. I asked my first question, got about three words back, and then I had to cut off the phone call to come to you. Kyra, sometimes live television has some real disadvantages when it comes to gathering information.

PHILLIPS: All right, you get back on the phone. And I promise we will come Back to you when you have got a little bit more info.

MESERVE: Kyra, thanks.

PHILLIPS: Jeanne Meserve, thanks so much.



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