WASHINGTON -- Senator John F. Kerry, bracing for a potential fight over election results, will not hesitate to declare victory Nov. 2 and defend it, advisers say. He also will be prepared to name a national security team before knowing whether he has secured the presidency.
In short, the Democratic presidential candidate has a simple strategy for Nov. 3 and beyond: Do not repeat Al Gore's mistakes.
The Democratic vice president prematurely conceded the 2000 race to George W. Bush in a telephone call, then had to retract his concession after aides said Florida was not lost. He never declared victory, an omission Kerry's advisers -- many of whom worked for Gore -- now think created a sense of inevitability in voters' minds about Bush's presidency.
Gore did not plan for the legal showdown, although few could have predicted it before Election Day. And he watched as Bush seized political advantage during the 36-day recount by publicly discussing a transition to the White House. Not this time, promise Kerry's advisers. If there is doubt about the results, they will fight without delay.
"The first thing we will do is make sure everybody has an opportunity to vote and every vote is counted," said Stephanie Cutter, a spokeswoman for Kerry. "We will be ready to hit the ground running and begin a fresh start in this country, given that so many critical issues are before us."
The prospects for another contested election loom with every poll indicating the race is neck and neck.
Six so-called "SWAT teams" of lawyers and political operatives will be situated around the country with fueled-up jets awaiting Kerry's orders to speed to a battleground state. The teams have been told to be ready to fly on the evening of the election to begin mounting legal and political fights. Every battleground state will have a SWAT team within an hour of its borders.
The Kerry campaign has recount office space in every battleground state, with plans so detailed that they include the number of staplers and coffee machines needed to mount legal challenges.
"Right now, we have 10,000 lawyers out in the battleground states on Election Day, and that number is growing by the day," said Michael Whouley, a Kerry confidant who is running election operations at the Democratic National Committee.
While the lawyers litigate, political operatives will try to shape public perception. Their goal would be to convince voters that Kerry has the best claim to the presidency and that Republicans are trying to steal it.
Democrats are laying the public relations groundwork by pointing to every possible voting irregularity before the Nov. 2 election and accusing Republicans of wrongdoing.
On Election Day, Whouley will head the so-called "boiler room," probably in Washington, that tracks vote counts and ensures that Kerry does not concede too soon. Whouley was the aide who, after noticing Florida was too close to call in 2000, called Gore's team in Tennessee and told them to put the brakes on the concession speech.
Campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill will be with Kerry in Boston, where they will field Whouley's calls. Jim Johnson, who headed Kerry's vice-presidential search team, former Labor secretary Alexis Herman, and longtime Kerry aide David McKean lead the team planning Kerry's transition to the White House.
Aides say the transition process is behind schedule, but Kerry will be ready to name a national security team shortly after the election. They say he has candidates in mind, but is reluctant to discuss the transition while campaigning.
The advisers spoke on condition of anonymity because Kerry wants the focus to be on his campaign for now.
Former UN ambassador Richard Holbrooke and Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, are among those frequently mentioned as possible members of Kerry's Cabinet.
The plan to quickly name a national security team is partly practical (at a time of war, continuity is necessary) and political, aides said, because if there is another recount Kerry will want to show he is ready to take power.
Amid the tumult of the 2000 recount, Bush sought to make his presidency seem inevitable in time by leaking word of his national security team and bringing news cameras into his transition meetings. Gore and his staff were more reluctant to talk about the appointment process.