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Bush went too far on overseas votes

In an old Abbott and Costello routine, the mere mention of a word or phrase sets off an explosion of invective and outrage. In American politics, "Florida" is one of those words.

On Sunday, the New York Times gave Florida recount mavens another opportunity to vent with a detailed account of how George W. Bush's presidential campaign played fast and loose with the state's overseas absentee ballots in order to fend off Al Gore's challenge.

The Times story provides yet more evidence that the presidential election was decided not by "a careful examination of the votes of Florida's citizens" but "by strategies extraneous to the voting process."

The words in quotation marks are from the Florida Supreme Court's brave decision ordering recounts that was quickly overturned, 5-4, by the U.S. Supreme Court. The greatest democracy in the world, as we like to call ourselves, allowed an election outcome to be determined by clever lawyering. Bush's lieutenants were willing to use one argument one day and exactly the opposite argument the next, depending on what served their candidate's interests.

Take, first, those famous military and civilian overseas ballots. The Gore campaign's lawyers, figuring that military votes would be cast disproportionately for Bush, had a strategy of tossing out all overseas votes that did not meet the basic requirements of state law. The Goreniks were denounced for not living up to their campaign battle cry, "Count Every Vote."

But the Bush campaign went a step further, assailing Democrats as unpatriotic and unfit to lead _ and never mind that it was Gore, not Bush, who served in our armed forces in Vietnam.

"No one who aspires to be commander in chief should seek to unfairly deny the votes of the men and women he would seek to command," declared Karen Hughes, Bush's spokeswoman and alter ego. Said Marc Racicot, the former governor of Montana: "I am very sorry to say, but the vice president's lawyers have gone to war in my judgment against the men and women who serve in our armed forces."

What we now learn is that the Bush campaign wasn't defending all military ballots. It was defending them selectively, depending on whether they were cast in Republican or Democratic counties. The Times reports that on one day, "in three South Florida counties, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach, boards rejected as illegal 362 of 572 overseas ballots." The Times adds: "Most _ including many military ballots _ were thrown out without a word of protest from Mr. Bush's lawyers." Bush wasn't defending military voters. He was defending Republican voters.

Of the ballots that included no postmark or dated signature to prove they were mailed by Election Day, as the law required, 62 percent were counted in counties carried by Bush; only 18 percent of such ballots were counted in counties carried by Gore. While the Bush campaign was complaining about an "equal protection" problem in the recount of regular votes, it was busy creating one with the overseas ballots.

The U.S. Supreme Court won't revisit the case, but perhaps Hughes and Racicot will now apologize to Gore for impugning his patriotism.

The Times also offered yet more evidence that Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris turned her office into an outpost for the Bush campaign and altered her statements and rulings on the overseas ballots to fit every new twist in the Bush strategy.

And, amazingly, Rep. Steve Buyer, an Indiana Republican, used his chairmanship of a House Armed Services subcommittee to get phone numbers and e-mail addresses of servicemen who had cast votes so they could be put into contact with the Florida Republican Party. One of the many reasons Americans are proud of our armed forces is our military's tradition of holding itself apart from partisan politics. Why risk politicizing the military just to win a few votes?

You don't have to be a Democrat or a Gore supporter to be upset by this. Nor is there any reason to criticize Bush's election lawyers for offering him all the options.

But If Bush wanted to avoid four years' worth of questions about how he "won" Florida, he needed to avoid the scorched earth strategy he ultimately pursued. At the very least, he didn't have to send out his spokesmen to question the patriotism of his adversaries. By doing so, he sowed the bitterness that still haunts our politics.

E.J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.

Washington Post Writers Group