WASHINGTON, July 15 — Several leading Democrats said today that the Bush campaign acted improperly in pressing for counting overseas absentee ballots in Florida after last year's presidential election. And some said they would probably call upon Congressional investigators to open an inquiry into efforts by Republicans to involve the Pentagon to help them contact military personnel.
The Democrats' comments were in response to articles published today in The New York Times that detailed how Republicans mounted a legal and public relations drive to persuade canvassing boards in Bush strongholds to waive Florida election laws when counting overseas absentee ballots.
"This story confirms our worst fears about the Bush team's campaign to manipulate the Florida vote," said Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee. "It proves that President Bush was determined to win by any means necessary, including violating the spirit if not the actual letter of the law. The story raises many disturbing questions about the conduct of President Bush in this campaign. He owes the American people an explanation of his actions."
Mr. McAuliffe and other Democrats said they were particularly distressed that Representative Steve Buyer, Republican of Indiana, had sent an urgent request to the Pentagon asking for telephone numbers or e-mail addresses of sailors, including some whose absentee ballots had been disqualified. The Democrats said lawmakers should open an investigation into whether it was illegal for Mr. Buyer to use government resources to get a list of potential voters and deliver it to the Bush campaign.
"I don't think it's proper for the Pentagon to hand out peoples' private e-mail addresses to the political parties — to either party," said Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, the House Democratic leader. "I don't get the sense from the story that there was fraud or illegality. But you've got to ask some questions. There were questionable moves made to pull in some of those votes. I don't know the facts of what went on with the Pentagon, but it's troubling."
Representative Peter Deutsch, Democrat of Florida, said he would probably call for a Congressional ethics inquiry. He said of Mr. Buyer's actions: "It's shocking. It's scary. And it's also illegal and a violation of his trust as an elected official. When you think it can't get any more shocking, it gets more shocking."
In a recent interview, Mr. Buyer had insisted that his outreach was appropriate. Acting as chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on personnel, Mr. Buyer said he was angry that lawyers for the Gore campaign had urged county canvassing boards to reject absentee ballots without postmarks.
Stanley M. Brand, a Democratic lawyer and a former counsel to the House, said the Armed Services Committee's cooperation with Republican officials appeared to be an ethical violation. "There is a general principle under the ethics rules in both the House and the Senate that you're not supposed to cross the wires between official oversight action and political action," Mr. Brand said.
But William B. Canfield, a Republican lawyer and a former counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Ethics, said if Mr. Buyer initiated the outreach as part of his oversight duties, it would probably not constitute a violation. "There is not any way humanly possible for a member of Congress to disassociate themselves entirely from politics," Mr. Canfield said.
Beyond the concerns about Mr. Buyer, other Democrats said they might call for an investigation into why aides to Katherine Harris, Florida's secretary of state, said work done on computers during the Florida stalemate had been erased, a potential violation of state public records laws. "We have to look at trying to see if criminal action needs to be taken against Katherine Harris," Bob Poe, chairman of the Florida Democratic Party, said in an interview, "particularly for the destruction of public records. It's very clear that Katherine Harris and Jeb Bush, for that matter, never took off their campaign hats during the whole postelection process — and they always claimed that they did."
Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, Mr. Gore's running mate, defended himself in the face of assertions that he undermined the Democrats' cause when he appeared on national television and said election officials should give the "benefit of the doubt" to military voters.
"We were fighting in Florida not just for a victory but for a principle that every vote that was cast should be counted," Mr. Lieberman said today on CNN's "Late Edition." "And you can't fight for that benefit of the doubt, for senior citizens and African-Americans and Haitian-Americans and South Florida counties where Democrats tend to do better, and not fight for that same right for, of all people, men and women in uniform overseas, there to protect our national security, who are voting by absentee ballot."
Mr. Lieberman added: "My immediate take on it is that the Republicans were not consistent and were prepared to do just about anything — I hope within the law — to win that election in Florida. And that was not our point of view."
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