Like others, Microsoft stuck in political limbo

Like the rest of the country, Microsoft Corp. remains in political limbo, with the futures of two Republicans viewed as friends of the antitrust-embattled software vendor -- presidential candidate George W. Bush and Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) -- hanging in the balance as votes continue to be counted and recounted.

Ironically, though, longtime Microsoft nemesis Ralph Nader could end up helping Bush reach the White House if the Texas governor manages to hold off Vice President Al Gore in Florida, partly due to votes cast in favor of Nader's Green Party candidacy.

Many observers have predicted that a Bush administration would take a dimmer view of the antitrust case brought against Microsoft by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) than the Clinton administration has. Bush hasn't commented directly on the Microsoft trial other than to say he prefers "innovation over litigation" -- a phrase that echoes Microsoft's framing of the issues raised by the antitrust case.

Under Bush, the DOJ likely would slow "the aggressive re-emergence of antitrust law enforcement, particularly in the high-tech sector," said Hillard Sterling, an antitrust attorney at Chicago-based law firm Gordon & Glickson LLC. "A Bush-driven government will look at these cases with great skepticism before authorizing any sort of [new] suits."

But, Sterling added, Microsoft could be out of luck if it's counting on a Bush administration to help it out of the antitrust mess that has left the company facing a breakup order issued last spring by U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson.

Regardless of who eventually moves into the White House, any settlement would have to get a thumbs-up from the state attorneys general who joined the DOJ as co-plaintiffs in the case against Microsoft. And many of those states have been strident in their calls to split up Microsoft and aren't likely to agree to a settlement at this stage, according to Sterling.

"The states vigorously oppose a settlement, and they could reject any settlement [deal between Microsoft and the DOJ]," he said. "It must be agreed to by all the plaintiffs, including those who have proven to be very unwilling to agree to anything short of a breakup."

In addition, potential Bush appointees to the DOJ would have to be approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which currently is chaired by U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). Hatch, who represents the state where Microsoft rival Novell Inc. is based, has been highly critical of Microsoft's business practices and has chaired hearings on high-tech competition.

Meanwhile, Gorton, dubbed "the senator from Microsoft" because of his staunch backing of the Redmond, Wash.-based company, remains locked in an undecided election battle against Democrat Maria Cantwell -- a former executive at Seattle-based RealNetworks Inc. who funded the bulk of her campaign with almost $10 million of her own money.

The results of that election may not be known for two weeks, as election officials in the state of Washington count more than 1 million absentee ballots.

Gorton made the antitrust case against Microsoft a key issue in his re-election campaign, accusing Cantwell of waffling on whether the company should be split in two and bragging that he had turned the Senate against Hatch. Bill Gates, Microsoft's chairman and chief software architect, hosted fund-raisers for Gorton during the campaign.

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