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Election Diaries:
Hughes on First

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Though it's a week after Halloween, the Hughes family house, on a shady corner lot in West Lake Hills, is covered in orange lights. "I did get the pumpkins out," Karen says proudly. "I love my house." Over the past year, the bulk of the domestic tasks have gone to Jerry Hughes, a lawyer who reduced his caseload to raise their 13-year-old son, Robert, while Karen was on the road.

In August, Karen decided to take Robert with her on the campaign plane for the last weeks of the campaign. She could home-school him at 30,000 feet. When he first arrived, the more cynical members of the press corps groused that Robert was there to act as a human shield for his mother, so she might be harder to confront. Party rivals wondered aloud if Hughes was trying to play up her working-mom image at a time when GOP Washingtonians were itching to install someone more seasoned and less Texan in the role of Bush spokesperson. But mother and son have an impressive rapport. Robert is like a sponge about campaign arcana, with instant lists of states to win if big battlegrounds go Gore's way.

She shepherds Robert to the car and gets in the driver's seat, and they drive toward downtown, discussing their unfamiliarity with Washington, D.C., which might just be their next hometown. Robert goads his mom into calling to get the early projections. She complies. "Uh-huh. Mm-hmm," she says into the phone. This is killing Robert.

"Twenty-four states too close to call?" she murmurs into the phone. "Interesting . . . that's interesting." The numbers are down in Michigan and Colorado, the latter especially startling, and Hughes suggests to Rove that Colorado's governor, Bill Owens, might be enlisted to make last-minute get-out-the-vote calls. She hangs up and tells Robert they are ahead in Ohio, West Virginia, Missouri, and Oregon. They're down as many as four points in Florida.

This is bad news, and everything falls silent inside the Mazda. Robert whispers to his mom, "Is that good or bad?"

"I don't know," she replies.

It's 3:30 p.m., and the Bush 2000 headquarters has a social atmosphere, a thin festive veneer over a core of nerves.

Karen bursts out of her office in mock arms-flailing psychosis, and lets out a loud laugh. "The model does this! The model says that!" she says of the vain quest for certainty. "It's in the bag, buddy," says media consultant Mark McKinnon to an increasingly anxious Robert. "You just have to be strong."

Condoleezza Rice, the governor's national-security adviser, is similarly agitated. "As in 'no' or 'no word'?" she asks when someone is unclear about whether the governor is the projected winner of an eastern state. "By the end of the day, this all becomes an out-of-body experience," she offers to a colleague in passing.

Joe Allbaugh, the campaign's burly, flat-topped taskmaster, bounds down the hall and surveys the crowd. "You guys better start smilin'," he shouts.

Karen powwows with Rove, Allbaugh, and campaign chairman Don Evans in Rove's office. Passing around a phone receiver, they all get to bring up their concerns to the governor. Karen suggests that he get on the phone and talk to media outlets before the polls close in key states. He is ambivalent, even though the vice-president and his running mate are burning up the lines. Word of Hillary Clinton's win is circulated along with the dismaying fact that exit polls may have Bush down in Arizona and Colorado, two states thought to be in the bag. Rove deems the ABC polling numbers "weird," and later apes the governor's response in grunts and shrugs.

Karen's next tasks are to set the governor's phone calls in motion, and her lieutenant Mindy Tucker produces a list that gets faxed to the governor, along with a draft of an acceptance speech written by in-house wordsmith Mike Gerson, then tweaked by Hughes. Within an hour, the word comes that the governor has been patched into drive-time radio shows in Pittsburgh.

Karen repairs to her office and boots up the computer. Robert fiddles with a little remote-controlled rat, a gift to Karen from a teasing Texas reporter in honor of the campaign's "subliminable" attack ad. There's more tinkering to do on the speech, but Karen can't deal with it yet. "I have trouble concentrating on this until I know," she says. When will she know? "My gut says 8:30 or 9 p.m." She fidgets with e-mail, including some nonpartisan kudos from reporters at the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. There's a prayerful message from her pewmates at Westlake Hills Presbyterian.

Around 5 p.m., she decides to return the call of Ron Fournier, the AP's hyperaggressive chief political writer. "Ron, I don't think so. We're not going to do that," she says, facing the wall where a plaque from the Lone Star Chapter of Government Communicators declares her 1999's Communicator of the Year. "He's just going to speak when he speaks." She ends the call. Outside her window, a mix of rain clouds and twilight makes the sky between the office towers beige.

An hour later, Hughes gets a call from the governor, who has read the acceptance-speech draft. She waves a three-page document that he had marked up and faxed back. "Some of it he liked. Some of it he didn't like. He wanted me to work on parts of it," Karen says, closing her office door on the deflated faces in the hallway.

At 7 p.m. Austin time, panic hits. The networks project that Florida is in the Gore column, just as the governor and his kin gather together for a family dinner. Florida governor Jeb Bush goes through "some interesting emotions," as his brother says later. George W., his wife, and his parents abruptly decamp for the Governor's Mansion, and aides are challenged to explain the change in plans. Gordon Johndroe, one of Hughes's assistants, who monitors the pool reporters, calls her to ask advice for what to tell them. Mindy Tucker bounds out of her office with the mobile phone to her ear, shouting, "This was his plan all along!"

The Bush camp's peevishness is aimed squarely at CNN. Karl Rove appears with pancake makeup on his face and corners a press aide: "I would like you to call NBC and CNN and ask them what the hell they are doing." The young volunteers manning the phones are silent, with eyes darting from screen to screen. "Are you okay?" one young woman asks a teary-eyed friend making her way to the women's restroom.

Jerry Hughes and Leah, his daughter from his first marriage, arrive and join Karen and Robert in her office. They bring in paper plates with Papa Johns pizza slices and drape themselves on the furniture. At 7:45, Karl Rove runs by, yelling, "Good news out of Philadelphia!" Within minutes, Karen's phone rings. It's the governor, and it's time for her to join him at the mansion.

Hughes gathers Robert and collects kisses before she heads down the elevator to the garage where her Mazda is parked. Along the way she starts describing the way she's redone the governor's acceptance speech. She has worked to make it sound like his voice. "I like to call it 'eloquent simplicity,' " she says. "It's simple, but it speaks volumes."

I ask when we'll see her again, and she says that we'll see her next whenever we see the governor. And then she gives a first-ever glimpse of her doubt about the outcome. "I'll be where the governor will be giving his speech -- either a victory speech or a concession speech."

The next time I speak to Karen, it's midday Friday. She's in a cobalt-blue suit, with Robert by her side, leaving her office and begging off cameras from NBC and CNN because "we're just going to get a sandwich." She's had only thirteen hours of sleep since Tuesday. "We won the election," she says wearily. "It's now been confirmed that we won the election, but the vice-president's campaign keeps erecting roadblocks." And what about the feeling of suspense she had Election Night, when she worried over details on the acceptance speech? She smiles "That? That feels like a million years ago."


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