Palin probe has parallels to 2000 recount fight

This time, there are no hanging chads.

Yet the Republicans' drive to derail an abuse of power investigation against Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the GOP vice presidential candidate, reflects the same determination and many of the same methods employed in shutting down the 2000 presidential recount in Florida.

Now, as then, the playbook includes lawsuits, the exercise of power by sympathetic state officials, and appeals to the court of public opinion — all in an operation directed by out-of-state Republicans.

“Hold me accountable,” Palin said when the Republican-controlled legislature launched the investigation in mid-August.

Now John McCain's running mate, she declines to cooperate. She calls the investigation tainted, her husband won't honor a subpoena to testify, and Republican lawmakers are in court with a pair of lawsuits challenging the legitimacy of the probe.

Republican lawyers, researchers and public relations specialists have been dispatched to Alaska. The Anchorage lawyer originally hired by the state to represent Palin is no longer paid by taxpayers and instead is part of the McCain-Palin campaign's legal team.

Former prosecutor Ed O'Callaghan, from New York, is the team's leading voice. “The investigation is no longer a legitimate investigation because it has been subjected to complete partisanship and does not operate with the authority that it had at the time of its initial authorization,” he told reporters earlier in the week.

Even though lawmakers announced plans for new subpoenas on Friday, there appears little chance that investigator Stephen Branchflower will receive testimony from all the witnesses he seeks before his Oct. 10 target date for completion.

That's nearly four weeks before Election Day, the date by which Troopergate, as it is known, can no longer affect McCain's chances of winning the White House.

And Democrats are not without their own maneuvers — casting Palin in an unfavorable light with allegations that Republican presidential candidate John McCain and his party are playing politics with the issue.

“The Republican presidential campaign is doing everything it can to stall and smear,” says Patti Higgins, chairwoman of the Alaska Democratic Party.

So far, the struggle has been largely one-sided. Advantage: Republicans and Palin, the governor whose firing of Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan triggered the controversy this summer.

Critics say Monegan was fired because he refused to dismiss a state trooper who had gone through a difficult divorce with the governor's sister. Palin says she acted in response to a disagreement with Monegan over state spending.

Whatever her motivation, Republicans have acted as though they could not afford to allow Branchflower to complete his probe before the election.

The similarities to the contested Florida recount of 2000 are striking, if imprecise — the uncertain outcome of a complete manual recount then, the unpredictability of a full accounting of the Monegan firing now.

Then, Bush clung to a slender lead in Florida over Al Gore after a statewide machine recount. Democrats sought a follow-up manual re-tally by hand in four counties, and Republicans determined to block them.

Given a margin of a few hundred votes out of millions cast, it was impossible to tell who had truly won the state. There were numerous disputed paper ballots — including those with partially-punched out holes that became instantly known by the phrase “hanging chads.

Republicans also were fearful of forfeiting their advantage in the public relations battle. Their man was ahead, and any reduction in his lead could only undermine his claim on the White House.

Lawsuits tumbled on top of one another, eventually involving Florida's highest court and U.S. Supreme Court.

Katherine Harris, the Republican secretary of state, was stopped by court order from certifying the results once — a ruling issued by seven judges appointed by Democrats, Republicans noted.

One county canvassing board, besieged by Republican protesters, shut down the recount Democrats sought. Harris refused to accept results from another county, submitted 90 minutes past the court-imposed deadline of 5 p.m. on Nov. 26.

That day, she certified Bush the winner of Florida by 537 votes — and the tally stood despite days of additional lawyering and hand-counting.

The stakes are not nearly as large this time, and Democrats have appeared slow off the mark, unwilling or unable to dispatch their own crew to Alaska to counter the Republicans.

And while there is no direct equivalent of Harris, Alaska's Republican attorney general, Talis Colberg, has played a pivotal, if quiet, role in trying to bottle up the investigation of the woman who appointed him.

When Branchflower sought to subpoena 10 employees of Palin's administration, Colberg reponded with a letter that said they had been placed in a untenable position.

“As state employees, our clients have taken an oath to uphold the Alaska Constitution,” he wrote.

Yet, he added, “our clients are also loyal employees subject to the supervision of the Governor” whom he said has stated that the subpoenas were of questionable validity.

“We respectfully ask that you withdraw the subpoenas directed to our clients and thereby relieve them from the circumstance of having to choose where their loyalties lie,” he added.


Eds: David Espo covers presidential politics for AP.

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