By DAVID ESPO
WASHINGTON – George W. Bush’s campaign accused Al Gore today of mounting “endless challenges” to a disputed vote count in make-or-break Florida and said the vice president should concede the race for the White House if he loses the state. Gore’s top aides left open the possibility of a court challenge.
Democratic legal experts “feel strongly” that the ballot used Election Day in one Florida county was unlawful, said Gore campaign chairman William Daley. “We’ll see what actions follow out of that,” he added.
But former Secretary of State James A. Baker, speaking on Bush’s behalf, said he hoped it didn’t go that far. “For the good of the country and for the sake of our standing in the world, the campaigning should end and the business of an orderly transition should begin,” he said.
An unofficial tally by The Associated Press of the recount in Florida’s 67 counties showed the Texas governor with a 327-vote lead over the vice president in the state whose 25 electoral votes will determine the next president. State officials said their recount showed Bush leading by 960 votes with 66 counties reporting.
A formal state recount is under way in Florida, but no final results are expected for several days. Also, the state has yet to tally an unknown number of ballots cast by Floridians living overseas – ballots that each side claims will favor its man.
Not counting the Sunshine State, Bush had won 29 states for 246 electoral votes. Gore had won 18 states plus the District of Columbia for 255, with 270 needed for victory. Oregon and New Mexico remained too close to call.
But between them, they did not provide enough electoral votes to settle the election, making Florida the ultimate battleground. Daley said a few counties had agreed to the Democrats’ request for at least a partial follow-up recount by hand.
“As frustrating as this wait may be, what we are seeing here is democracy in action,” he added.
He and former Secretary of State Warren Christopher went before reporters to argue Gore’s case a short while after Baker spoke for Bush.
Baker said Republicans had twice in the past 40 years decided against challenging closely contested elections. In the case of Vice President Richard Nixon in 1960, and President Gerald R. Ford in 1976, he said the two men “put the country’s interests first.”
He suggested America’s standing the world might begin to suffer if the election is prolonged, but Christopher brushed that claim aside. “I don’t see any threat at the moment,” he said, adding that America always has “this period of interregnum” when administrations change.
Bush was in Texas, Gore in Washington as their political fates were being determined.
The uncertainty overshadowed any talk of the transition to a new administration and raised the specter, however faint, of an Electoral College deadlock that could send the presidential election to the House of Representatives.
The incomplete national popular vote totals – as of 10 a.m. EST – showed Gore with 49,145,560 votes, or 48.3 percent. Bush had 48,947,577, or 48.1 percent.
Even some Democrats began suggesting that Gore be careful not to take his challenges too far.
“I want Al Gore to win this election but, more than that, I want somebody to win this election,” said Sen. Robert Torricelli of New Jersey. “I would urge both Al Gore and George Bush to think of the country – the continuity of government, its stability – and avoid any collateral attacks on the process.”
Gore’s campaign argues that a faulty ballot design in Palm Beach County led some of the vice president’s supporters to vote inadvertently for Pat Buchanan. Additionally, several thousand ballots were discarded by election officials because they were marked for two presidential candidates.
Baker noted that the ballot was made available to both parties and both campaigns well in advance of Election Day, and no questions were raised.
Florida election officials today defended the ballot, saying it met the requirements of state law.
“The Department of State has reviewed the Palm Beach County ballot and has found the order of the ballot complies with the law, and the design and the layout of the ballot does conform to the laws of the state of Florida,” said Clay Roberts, the director of the state division of elections.
Additionally, Democratic officials said they had found 6,000 ballots in Broward County that were punched but not all the way through, so the machines didn’t pick them up. A Gore adviser said the campaign had won authorization for a recount by hand in Broward County.
Several lawsuits have been filed challenging the election.
In one case, a local judge in Florida has ordered officials in Palm Beach County not to certify those results until a hearing can be held next week.
Standing before reporters in Florida, Baker read a carefully worded statement, speaking deliberately, before answering a few questions.
“At the end of this recount, Governor Bush is still the winner, subject only to overseas ballots, which traditionally have favored the Republican candidates,” he said.
“It is frustrating to lose an election by a narrow margin,” he added, “but it happens.” He cited the precedent of 1960, when Vice President Richard M. Nixon narrowly lost the White House, and 1976, when President Ford was turned out of office.
Both elections were close, he said, but each man chose to accept the verdict.
Baker coupled his appeal to Gore with a not-so-subtle threat that Republicans, too, could start demanding recounts in states where Bush lost narrowly.
“Let the country step back for a minute and pause and think about what’s at stake here. This may be the last chance to do that,” he said. “There is no reasonable end to this process if it slips away.”
In an earlier statement, Gore campaign chairman Daley outlined the Democratic stance. “Contrary to claims being made this morning by the Bush campaign, this election is not over. Again, we want the true and accurate will of the people to prevail, and that means letting the legal system run its course.”
At the same time, some Democrats questioned how far Gore should pursue the case, saying it could damage voter confidence in the nation’s electoral process.
Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana said through a spokesman, “Both candidates have the right to be assured by the courts that all election laws have been adhered to. This process, however, should not be dragged out over an extended period of time.”
The Democratic speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, Rep. Casper Taylor, said he didn’t object to seeking a hand recount of certain ballots in Florida, but cautioned against an effort to seek a new election in the Palm Beach area. “I’m fearful that if our system starts to allow any group of voters to start revoting, we are going down a very, very scary road,” he said.
Former Sen. Robert Dole, appearing on CBS’ “The Early Show,” said, “I think if I were Al Gore, and I know him fairly well – we’ve had a count, we’ve had a recount – it’s time for him to say the election is over, let’s go on with the business of America. The recount was held. Bush is still the winner.”
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