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Stirrings in Florida bespeak 2000 dispute

JUPITER, Fla. -- Alongside pictures of early residents and an exhibit celebrating the legendary Everglades crusader Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the Loxahatchee River Historical Museum preserves one of the most important artifacts in political history.

Mounted atop a special display stage is an authentic Palm Beach County "butterfly" ballot from the 2000 presidential election, held open for viewing like a menu from a long-destroyed resort hotel.

The 2000 election now belongs to the ages, and the Florida Republican Party is hoping it remains as much a part of the silent past as the nearby gravesites from the Seminole Wars of the 19th century.

But while the 2000 dispute is still slumbering under the surface of this year's equally crucial Florida vote, there are stirrings in the crypt.

The furor of Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia's duck-hunting excursion with Vice President Dick Cheney is ostensibly about whether Scalia has a conflict of interest in an upcoming case over whether to force Cheney's energy task force to release its records. But it is hard not to see it as payback for Scalia's injunction that stopped Florida counties from recounting votes at a point when George W. Bush had a tiny lead.

Then, last week, Senator Bob Graham, Democrat of Florida, and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York, introduced legislation calling for a paper record of computer voting in the upcoming elections. Citing the 2000 election, the senators saw the need to head off any irregularities in the computers that have replaced paper ballots in many counties.

The machines, most of them made by companies owned by businessmen with ties to the Republicans, have already launched conspiracy theories among some Democrats about the 2002 congressional elections, which went heavily to Republicans.

And, perhaps most significantly, Democrats are increasingly attacking Bush for violating his promise to govern with bipartisanship, a charge that goes to the heart of the 2000 election: With fewer popular votes than his opponent and an electoral-college majority imposed by a court, Bush has governed with little apparent thought to the preferences of half the country.

"Florida is like the nation in its political uncertainty," said conservation activist Maggy Hurchalla, who toured the state last year during the Democratic gubernatorial campaign of her sister, former US attorney general Janet Reno. "I think they saw Bush as a pleasant fellow who'd stay in the middle because that's where you get elected."

But it is far from clear that the reverberations from 2000 can rattle Bush in 2004.

For better or worse, Florida's odd mix of constituencies tends to vote on specific issues: Social Security and Medicare for the large senior population; US policy toward Cuba for the Cuban exile community; government regulatory policies on sugar and citrus for the state's business community.

Memories of 2000 will probably motivate African-Americans. Some urban precincts with heavily minority populations had less accurate voting equipment, and therefore had more votes disqualified than other precincts. But there was heavy turnout among black voters in 2000, and Bush still eked out a win.

Moreover, Florida Democrats tried to wave the bloody shirt of 2000 against the president's brother, Governor Jeb Bush, in 2002, but failed. Despite their determination to beat the Bushes, the Democrats split between two candidates, never quite made up in the general election, and saw Governor Bush reelected in a landslide.

Another presidential election will present a clearer analogy to 2000. In 2004, seemingly every chapter of the drama four years ago will be recalled. (Ralph Nader is planning a big push here again.) But how much voters will remember, and whether those memories will anger them enough to alter their voting patterns, is an open question.

So far, the nation's ability to absorb a disputed election has been, if nothing else, a testament to the durability of American institutions. A nation that still obsesses about conspiracy theories from the Kennedy assassination had little problem accepting an election in which the weak joints and crumbling foundation were obvious to supporters on both sides.

In his dissent from the decisive case of Bush v. Gore, Associate Justice Stephen Breyer called the majority decision "a wound that may not just harm the court, but the nation."

He was wrong. The court's reputation survived. The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks conferred a legitimacy on the Bush presidency. But now Floridians are wondering whether voters will purge their frustrations from 2000 in the best forum a democracy can provide: another election.

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