WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Before this, the words "Palm Beach" probably conjured up two pictures: the sun-dappled playground of the very rich and gossip-column famous or the spot where every Jewish grandmother retired to play canasta with the girls.
Now, it's being talked about as the home of the foolish voters who couldn't figure out how to punch their Election Day ballots. It's the place where the presidency could be at stake. It's the place undertaking a hand recount of 460,000 ballots, a tedious process the county Canvassing Board doesn't expect to finish until Sunday night, nearly two weeks after the votes were cast.
"Everyone in the press thinks of 90-year-old ladies from Long Island or some rich guy from Nantucket," said Eliot Kleinberg, the author of "Weird Florida" and several books on Florida history. "It's neither. It's a million things. ... For the most part, this is a county that's impossible to pigeonhole."
Fast-growing Palm Beach County is made up of nearly 40 cities, each with its own personality. The largest - but not by much - is West Palm Beach, a city in the middle of a face-lift. The county is 2,023 square miles, nearly half the size of Connecticut. It takes an hour to drive east to west, an hour to travel north to south. Twenty-five percent of its more than 1 million residents are over the age of 65.
On the East Coast stand the mansions of Palm Beach, including the multimillion-dollar home of singer Jimmy Buffett, who earned his millions with songs urging listeners to become beach bums. His neighbors are bluebloods, with their Bentleys, Rollses and trust funds.
This last time the world came to town was in 1991 for the rape trial of William Kennedy Smith, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's nephew, who was acquitted.
An hour to the west is sugar cane country, fields of black soil worked by migrants and low-wage hands who toil along the banks of Lake Okeechobee. Here is some of the greatest poverty in the South.
There are the Jewish retirement communities in the southern portion of the county, home to 230,000 Jews at least part of the year. There is a large population of Haitian immigrants in Delray Beach. There is a large population of Finns in Lake Worth. There's a coastal town called Briny Breezes, a 500-unit trailer park with its own mayor.
West Palm Beach was wilderness before the 1900s, when Henry Flagler built his railroad and decided to anchor hotels along the Atlantic Ocean.
Since 1980, the county has doubled in population. It's one of the state's most Democratic counties, with 45 percent of its voters registered Democrats about 35 percent registered Republicans.
"The great majority of the residents who live here now are from other places - the Midwest, the Northeast," said state Sen. Ron Klein.
Yesterday, as Patty Brick waited for a rally to begin featuring the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, who has been pushing for an election do-over here with appearances countywide over the past several days, she was selling T-shirts.
They say "Palm Beach Recounty, Florida" and mimic the county's swaying-palm-tree logo.
She's a Gore supporter and an Internet consultant who has found it hard to work in the week since the election. She is too caught up in what's going to happen and in watching the spotlight shine on the place where she has lived all of her 43 years.
She has started a Web site (www.palmbeachrecounty.com) where she'll sell T-shirts and comment on the national news swirling around her.
"It's disturbing to see this kind of thing going on in this county," she said. She recalls picking up the local newspaper Wednesday morning to see that the race for the White House was over, save for her home state.
"I thought, 'Oh my God, it all hinges on us,'" she said. "It's mind-boggling."
The rally of thousands of residents, black and white, young and old, was a noisy and chaotic one, with a half-dozen helicopters patrolling the skies above and a bevy of supporters of Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore competing for attention.
One sign read: "I thought you trusted us George?" Another: "Recount their IQs," a reference to the now-famous "butterfly ballot" that voters said confused them and led some to vote for Reform Party nominee Patrick J. Buchanan instead of Gore.
Sometimes classy, sometimes crude Palm Beach County has become the butt of late-night talk show monologues. Someone from Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" was spotted near the podium as Jackson, clad in black, ascended the stage. One white man, carrying an "African-Americans for Gore-Lieberman" sign and a camera around his neck, called himself a "political junkie" and said he took a vacation day from work to take it in.
"I think the world probably thinks we're all idiots, which is a shame," said a woman standing nearby, Pat Delettre, a homemaker wearing a shirt of stars and stripes. She says, shrugging, that she voted for Gore, "I think. I'm pretty sure, but I guess I couldn't put my best bottom dollar on it."
The circus atmosphere doesn't surprise author Kleinberg. He filled a book with tales of the offbeat in his home state and thinks that between the butterfly ballot and the saga of 6-year-old Cuban Elian Gonzalez, who was rescued at sea last year and became the focus of an international tug of war, he has enough to start a second.
There's even a chapter on voting oddities, including a 103-year-old woman who voted for the first time in 1990, saying she had never gotten around to doing it before.
"There's a scientific reason weirdness happens in Florida," he said. "Weirdness happens all over the country, and Florida is a microcosm.
"Weird people generally gravitate to Florida because Florida is alluring to transient people, it's alluring to people who are fleeing something. ...
"It's like throwing a bunch of nails into a fan and being surprised when everything goes flying."