Win-win Situation

Both campaigns are planning victory parties, but only one - who knows which - will get to wear the party hat.

October 28, 2004|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

The Kerry campaign is promising guest stars and musical acts for an election-night victory party in Boston's Copley Square, where John Kerry and running-mate John Edwards are set to appear against the backdrop of the Boston Public Library, a cheering crowd and a panoramic skyline.

President Bush's Election Day is scheduled to start in Crawford, Texas, where he and the first lady will vote, but ends at the Reagan Building in Washington, a stately setting in the seat of power where the Republicans will hold their victory celebration.

When it comes to planning election-night parties, everybody's a winner. Just listening to the campaigns, you'd never know any candidate ever loses an election.

The election-night party has become ever more stage-managed and glossed up, catering to a live crowd and a nation of TV-watchers. Both sides try to accommodate hordes of press and campaign workers, control the images and otherwise wrap a physical setting around the intangible idea that the people have spoken.

Even after the lessons of the 2000 election - featuring election-night parties for victories that never came - campaign workers are just as bold in planning this year's celebrations. Despite predictions of a tight race, each campaign is confidently scripting its victory parties.

"All eyes are focused on a victory speech," says Michael Meehan, a spokesman for the Kerry campaign, which expects at least 20,000 people for the outdoor event.

Republicans are promising an "Election Night Victory Celebration" in the Reagan Building's camera-ready atrium, offering a chance to showcase Bush amid a majestic staircase, grand columns and granite floors crowded with supporters.

The final party is no ordinary rally, of course. Campaign workers, strung out from hopscotching the country on little sleep, are told to suddenly stop everything and wait. If the exit polls look bad, they're not supposed to admit the race is probably over.

On election night 2000, the race was over, but then it wasn't. That night in Nashville, Gore had already conceded to Bush by phone and was en route to do so to the nation when all the cell phone lines jammed. No one could reach Gore to tell him the election results that gave Bush the victory were in dispute. Adviser Michael Feldman ran up to the motorcade, telling the Secret Service not to let Gore give the concession speech. Gore never took the stage; election-night vote tallying would go on for more than a month.

"I remember it going from celebration into limbo and then into a wake and then back into limbo," says Feldman. "It was a game of chess that was beginning then, and we didn't realize it would go on for 36 days."

The election-night parties for both sides were memorable that year, but not for the reasons planners had hoped.

While supporters gathered at outdoor celebrations for Bush in Austin and Gore in Nashville, a cold rain poured down in both cities as the election-night productions fizzled. Hundreds of Bush and Gore supporters waited around, not knowing what to do.

"I woke to see the election called for Bush in the wee hours of the morning," recalls Juleanna Glover Weiss, then Dick Cheney's campaign press secretary. "We immediately proceeded to the vice presidential motorcade for the trip to the governor's mansion. At the governor's mansion we were all put in a holding pattern while we waited for Gore's concession - only to see [NBC's Tim Russert] begin to hedge on the result. We piled back in the motorcade and returned to the hotel."

As election night 2000 proved, these evenings can't be so easily scripted even if the campaigns try to make them look like pre-inaugurations. In the past, campaigns often played it safer, simply posting a bunch of campaign signs in a hotel ballroom and sending the candidate before the cameras and an invitation-only crowd.

More pageantry

Campaign workers say the election-night party reached a new level of pageantry in 1992. That year, George H.W. Bush conceded defeat in a low-ceilinged hotel ballroom in Houston. But Bill Clinton created an outdoor rally in Little Rock, Ark., with music and cheering throngs. As he accepted victory, large sports lights illuminated the Old State House, bunting draped the building's facade, supporters stood behind police barricades imported from New Orleans because the city didn't have enough to control all the people. The local airport filled with private jets; the faithful called it the social event of the season.

That night, Clinton campaign aide Josh King - who was standing inside the scrum of hundreds of people - recalls actually feeling the shift as Bill Clinton and Al Gore went from candidates to future inhabitants of the White House.

"We were all exuberant young campaigners, flush with victory, putting our hands toward the stage," King says. "I remember Clinton and Gore knelt down and put their arms out and for the first time a new detail of Secret Service agents grabbed their belt loops to make sure they didn't fall into the mosh pit."

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