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Gillum bets future on defending Floridians' right to vote

Analysis: Will he be seen as a voting rights champion — or a sore loser?
Image: Andrew Gillum
The conundrum for Gillum is both straightforward and a bit of a political straitjacket.Colin Hackley / Reuters

If Andrew Gillum ends up as the next governor of Florida, his post-election gymnastics will have been worth it.

But for now, a narrow defeat — close enough to trigger a recount under Florida law — may be the worst possible outcome for a rising star in the Florida and national Democratic parties who had briefly found the political silver lining in a graceful exit after a close race.

On Election Night, Gillum conceded the contest to Republican Ron DeSantis. His decision was rendered with the alacrity and upbeat notes of a candidate who knew he'd be back on the ballot — and it stood in contrast to the bitter fight that Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who also trailed his Republican opponent, Gov. Rick Scott, started to mount immediately.

But on Saturday, with the vote gap having closed considerably, Gillum reversed himself.

"I am replacing my earlier concession with an unapologetic and uncompromised call to count every vote," he said.

The conundrum for Gillum was both straightforward and a bit of a political straitjacket.

If he had stuck to the initial concession, he might have enhanced his standing with swing voters who don't want a drawn-out process — at the cost of disappointing dedicated Democrats in Florida and around the country. By pushing the process forward, even reluctantly or with less vigor than Nelson, he may please his core constituency but signal to swing voters that he's a sore loser — the exact opposite of the message sent by his concession.

Either decision carried risk.

Because Florida is once again the center of national political attention, these themes — Gillum as protector of the rights of voters in heavily minority parts of Florida, or partisan Democrat unwilling to accept the results of the election — figure to have implications whether he has designs on state or federal office down the road.

His camp says his actions on election night and since have been responsible and geared toward ensuring the sanctity of the 2016 election — not positioning himself for any other bid for office.

"I don’t think he’s so much thinking about his future whether it’s statewide, nationally or within the party. I think it’s a bright future," said one Gillum adviser who spoke to NBC on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the topic on the record.

"While the race isn’t over yet, his top priority is making sure that the will of the people is heard, and that means making sure that every vote is counted, and I don’t think that is going to do anything to hurt him in the future," the Gillum adviser said. "I think he’s being an adult here."

But Gillum has tread much more lightly when it comes to litigation than Nelson, a 75-year-old three-term senator who seems unlikely to run for office again if he loses his seat — or, if he ultimately wins and wants to seek re-election, has six years to repair any damage.

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Nelson and Gillum are playing something of an inside-outside game, with Gillum working the grassroots.

Gillum has let Nelson take the lead on litigation, but he’s remaining actively engaged with his political base. He held a rally at a black church in Ft. Lauderdale Sunday night and had another event planned in Palm Beach Monday. And it is Gillum’s supporters who have faced off against Trump backers outside the Broward County supervisor of elections’ office.

Barry Richard, an attorney for Gillum, told NBC's Hallie Jackson Monday that Gillum is reluctant to engage in legal action if some Florida's counties aren't able to complete their vote counts by the 3 p.m. Thursday deadline but noted that the candidate is "reviewing his options" and that a lawsuit has always been "on the table."

"As of this morning, we had a discussion in which he wants to receive advice as to what options he has," Richard said on MSNBC. "What Mayor Gillum is concerned about at this point is, whether or not it ultimately would affect his race, that he feels an obligation to ensure votes are counted and not to sit back when we are learning that they are not being counted for a number of reasons."

With Republican and Democratic operatives and lawyers being recruited to travel to Florida to observe vote-counting for the second time in two decades, it's not entirely clear how the rest of the plot will play out for Gillum, Nelson, DeSantis and Scott.

But Gillum, faced with the toughest set of choices of the four — the two Republicans could and did declare victory while Nelson doesn't have to worry about rubbing voters the wrong way — has cast his lot on the side of not surrendering unless he remains behind after all the votes have been counted, recounted and perhaps tallied a third time.

He has to hope that, if he is defeated, voters can accept the explanation that demanding a full count was about standing up for the rights of Floridians rather than for himself.