Bush and Gore plot their next moves

By RON FOURNIER

Associated Press

Democrats and Republicans scratched for votes across Florida as Al Gore and George W. Bush plotted strategies for Stoday, when the state’s top elections official certifies the longest, closest White House race in 124 years.

In the latest development, the Broward County canvassing board completed its hand count of presidential ballots late Saturday night, unofficially giving Gore a net gain of 567 votes — badly needed if he is to overtake Bush statewide.

The Texas governor clung to an improbably narrow lead Saturday. His unofficial margin by evening was 464 votes — not counting tallies in Palm Beach County, where Gore was reported gaining close to 100 more votes.

As controversies erupted over a surprise cache of absentee ballots and the disparate standards for validating votes, Gore advisers said they doubted he would overtake the Texas governor before 5 p.m. EST today, when Secretary of State Katherine Harris is to certify Florida’s new vote totals. Before the hand recounts, Bush had a 930-vote lead out of 6 million cast.

The totals may not be clear Sunday. Ben McKay, a spokesman for Harris, said the certification could take hours or even be delayed indefinitely if there is legal action or "unforeseen circumstances. There could be an injunction … the Legislature could take it over," he said in a telephone interview, reflecting how unpredictable the recount has become.

Gore plans to protest some county results in state courts Monday, and the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing arguments four days later on Bush’s case against recounts — meaning the nation may not know its 43rd president until legal wrangling wraps up deep in December.

Bush, too, was prepared to protest Harris’ certification, whether or not Gore overtakes him. Under Florida law, the loser can challenge the election after it is certified, and the winner can file a "counter-contest" raising separate complaints.

"I don’t think the idea that the election is over with the certification by Governor Bush’s Florida campaign manager is going to get a lot of traction," said Gore lawyer David Boies.

The vice president’s staff was making tentative plans for a Monday address by Gore, a senior adviser said on condition of anonymity. The speech would give the vice president a chance to explain why he was fighting the certification, they said, and set the stage for the historic clash before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The planning reflects the concern among Gore advisers that Democrats will begin to abandon their presidential candidate or the public will grow weary of the protracted legal fight. Across the country on Saturday, Democrats said Gore had reason to worry.

"Whatever the secretary of state has to say, somebody will contest those votes and at that point people are going to say, ‘Enough is enough. It’s time to put this puppy to bed,’ " said Jim Duffy, a Democratic strategist in Washington.

Former President Jimmy Carter, advancing Gore’s argument for contesting the results, said in a statement released by the campaign: "This may take time, but it is time well spent. … We must not sacrifice accuracy for speed in deciding who has been chosen by the voters."

The Broward County board completed the exhausting, cantankerous recount, which began Nov. 15, just before midnight.

In the end, Gore had a net gain of 567 votes in unofficial totals, cutting into Republican Bush’s official lead of 930.

Gore picked up 137 votes in the hand recounting of noncontroversial ballots completed earlier this week. The rest came from the review of questionable ballots by the board, made up of two Democrats and a Republican.

Republicans were alarmed when hundreds of absentee ballots turned up in piles of disputed votes in Broward County, and they objected to plans to count them. Bush’s lawyers, meanwhile, dropped a statewide lawsuit over rejected overseas absentee ballots, but sued Saturday in four counties — Hillsborough, Okaloosa, Pasco and Polk — to pad his lead with votes from military personnel. A lawsuit in Orange County was planned today.

Republicans said the Sunday deadline offers a public relations opportunity for Bush — if he still leads Gore. Aides had not decided how to address the milestone. Whether or not Bush declares outright victory and suggests that Gore concede depends on the vote totals today, a senior official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Gore’s staff estimated he will fall 300 to 400 votes short, though they didn’t rule out the possibility that he could slip past Bush. One senior adviser pointed to the overseas absentee ballots and GOP activity in scattered counties to suggest Bush will pick up a surprising number of votes in the final hours of counting and may top Gore by 900 or more.

It was impossible to determine whether such dire talk was sincere or a desire to lower expectations. The same can be said of Bush aides, who held out the possibility that Gore could yet overtake them.

The U.S. Supreme Court stepped into the fiercely fought campaign Friday, agreeing to consider Bush’s appeal against the hand recounting of ballots in Florida.

The Florida Supreme Court ruled last week that the recounts could continue, but set a 5 p.m. EST deadline today. The order allows either Bush or Gore to contest the certified totals in state circuit court.

The candidates laid low Saturday. Bush spent most of the day at his ranch in Texas and returned to the governor’s mansion in the evening to a crowd of supporters yelling, "President Bush! President Bush!" Gore went out for chocolate-chip ice cream then returned to his official residence in Washington, where a handful of demonstrators massed. "Get out of Cheney’s house!" chanted GOP protesters. Others backed Gore.

Vote-counting continued in Palm Beach County. Palm Beach elections board member Carol Roberts said officials might work all night in an attempt to review 9,500 questionable ballots. The board will send partial results to the state if it fails to complete the hand count by oday’s deadline. McKay, in the secretary of state’s office, said the state canvassing board would have to "make a determination" on whether to accept incomplete results.

With two-thirds of the precincts examined, Gore had gained between 50 and 100 votes, according to Democratic and Republican observers in Palm Beach County, a pace that angered and disappointed Democrats.

The vice president believes he is being held back in Palm Beach by officials who refuse to count ballots with indentations next to the vice president’s name as votes.

Gore, assuming he falls short of Bush, plans to challenge the today’s certification, alleging that:

  • Palm Beach officials threw out too many ballots, refusing to adopt a liberal standard for determining the voters’ intent.

  • Officials in Miami-Dade County, a Democratic bastion, broke state law by shutting down its recount last week.

    Gore’s lawyers also contend that Palm Beach County’s ballot design confused thousands of voters, including an unknown number of Democrats who say they mistakenly cast ballots for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan. The Gore camp has collected 10,000 affidavits from voters who say they were confused by the ballot or given improper instructions by poll workers. Gore’s lawyers have not ruled out a separate lawsuit.

    If Gore somehow overtakes Bush, the Texan’s lawyers are prepared to contest certification on grounds that Broward County adopted too expansive a standard for approving votes. The disqualification of overseas ballots could also be an issue, said a senior Bush adviser.

    Bush had filed suit seeking to force counties to reconsider overseas military ballots rejected for lack of a postmark or other problems. He shifted his legal strategy Saturday, seeking action in individual counties for recounts of the overseas ballots.

    Six counties already have given the rejected ballots a second look, accepting scores of them and adding 67 votes to Bush’s previous total. McKay said Harris would count the incoming absentee ballots.

    Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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