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Sharing 15 minutes in the spotlight

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON - With the cameras already rolling, Terre Cass, a Florida court administrator, psyched herself up to announce a ruling last week that upheld a deadline for all counties to certify their presidential election results. But first, a more pressing matter:

"Somebody told me, 'Quick, go put on some lipstick - your lips look white,'" Cass, 44, recalled of the minutes before she stepped into the spotlight. With a swipe of burgundy gloss, she was ready.

"I really want Peter Jennings to say my name on TV," she confided about her 15-minute stardom. "He's my favorite."

The harried employees at the Leon County Circuit Courthouse know about instant celebrity in this election aftermath. Judge Terry P. Lewis finally got some mention for that 1997 thriller he wrote about an alcoholic lawyer accused of murdering a seductive reporter.

And Doug Smith, a computer technician known before as the voice on the office voice mail, basked in his new role as court spokesman and insisted that history get his name right.

"If you want the real full bull, it's Douglas B. Smith III," he said.

The not-ready-for-prime-time Florida state bureaucrats have played unexpected leading roles in the election recount blockbuster, shining brightly for a time but ready to fade into oblivion just as fast. They are the post-election incarnations of Donato Dalrymple, the so-called fisherman in the Elian Gonzalez saga, or Lucianne Goldberg, the chain-smoking foil in the Monica Lewinsky drama, or Brian "Kato" Kaelin, the puck-faced media darling of the O. J. Simpson trial.

Such fame tends to evaporate once the cameras leave ("I know I'm a nobody," Dalrymple told a reporter not long ago), but one thing the popular culture of the past decade has taught us is that C-SPAN can create a star faster than a Hollywood agent with speed dial.

The Florida election saga has made hot topics out of everything from the 1876 election to the puckered paper ballot punch-outs known as pregnant chads. Along the way, county officials, lawyers and assorted hangers-on have turned politics into something Americans can watch with a legal dictionary and a jumbo box of Junior Mints. Here is their Election Recount Playbill:

THERESA LePORE:

The Palm Beach County elections supervisor took to wearing Jackie O sunglasses while in public all last week, perhaps to shield herself from the glare of fellow Democrats. LePore, 45, who got her first job at the elections board when she was just 16 and worked her way up to supervisor three years ago, has suffered national ignominy after designing the "butterfly ballot." Allies of Al Gore believe that ballot design confused many Floridians into casting their presidential vote for Patrick J. Buchanan of the Reform Party, even though they intended to vote for Gore.

All last week, a nervous LePore had refused to begin the hand recount in her county, noting conflicting legal decisions, and sat in sullen silence before the media mob. Once the recount had begun, she could be caught on television, slamming open and shut metal ballot boxes. These days, the Palm Beach native's $107,000-a-year salary is hardly enough to cheer her through long days with police protection, a sinus infection and at least one neighbor wailing to her hometown newspaper, "I'd like to string her up."

CAROL ROBERTS:

With a cache of miniature cigars and a mouthful of attitude, Carol Roberts of Palm Beach County's canvassing board emerged as the Democrats' local pit bull.

Roberts, who keeps a Gore bumper sticker on her car, was so eager to hand-count ballots that she didn't seem to mind if it were ultimately determined that the board lacked the authority to do so. "Do we go to jail?" she said. "Because I'm willing to go to jail." With her husky voice and rusty hair, she is no pushover, scolding a Republican ballot observer who had banged a metal chair: "Please just sit quietly."

Rivals are accusing Roberts, 64, of mishandling contested ballots and of surreptitiously plucking off chads in order to diminish George W. Bush's lead. Roberts, the sole member of the board to urge hand recounts before the state Supreme Court approved the move, is the subject of a book by her husband, "My Wife, the Politician."

Single-minded though she has been about the recount, Roberts is not all business. When the dramatic moment finally arrived and the hand recount got under way Thursday night, she was heard over a live microphone asking a staffer, "Have any more cookies?"

JUDGE CHARLES BURTON:

The third member on the Palm Beach canvassing board has jokingly suggested T-shirts calling the panel the "Three Stooges" and yawned through a recount, declaring, "I'm losing it, I tell you."

With slicked back salt-and-pepper hair and a permanent tan, Burton spent 11 years as a prosecutor and is known as a Democrat. Nevertheless, he was named as a Palm Beach County Court judge this year by Bush's Republican brother, Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida.

Now the 42-year-old judge has become the board's spokesman with a taste for the occasional glib line. "Harold Stern's waiting over there for you," he told a heckler who alleged a romantic liaison among canvassing committee members. Burton has made cameo appearances on the networks and in foreign newspapers, where he has proposed stuffing baggies with 20 chads each and selling them as souvenirs.

KATHERINE HARRIS:

Republicans herald the Florida secretary of state as a heroine, while rivals dub her everything from "Commissar Harris" to "Cruella De Vil coming to steal the puppies." Harris, who was a co-chairman of Bush's presidential campaign in Florida, consistently blocked manual recounts in the state's contested counties last week. Harris, 43, makes much of her love for the arts, and she climbed the Florida political ladder by defeating a state Senate opponent who declared, "Reubens is a sandwich." Heir to a citrus fortune, she became secretary of state two years ago after a nasty election fight in which she battled allegations that she accepted $20,000 in illegal campaign contributions during her first state Senate race in 1994.

The Gore campaign alleges she's angling for an ambassadorship. But Harris, who was a Bush delegate to the Republican National Convention, insists that she wants no role in politics. "I had grown up around politics all my life and didn't like politics," she said two years ago. "I was determined not to be in politics."

JUDGE TERRY LEWIS:

The Leon County Circuit Court trial judge, who ruled Friday that Harris could reject the disputed hand recounts, has kept his political leanings to himself, although he was appointed to the bench two years ago by a Democratic governor. On top of that, the 48-year-old judge is making news for "Conflict of Interest," his 1997 potboiler complete with murder, alcoholic blackouts, a forbidden tryst and a title that recalls some post-election allegations in Tallahassee.

Ellen Gamerman is a reporter on The Sun's national staff.

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