Bush lead dwindles to 225 votes in Florida

By TERENCE HUNT

Associated Press

WASHINGTON – George W. Bush’s margin over Al Gore in make-or-break Florida dwindled to 403 votes today in a continuing canvass that held the presidential rivals and the nation in agonizing suspense. Democrats said they would demand a follow-up recount by hand in a few parts of the state and possibly even a new election in the Palm Beach area.

Gore campaign chairman William Daley said his party also will support legal actions by voters who say a confusing ballot may have led them to vote inadvertently for Pat Buchanan when they meant to support the vice president.

“Technicalities should not determine the president of the United States, the will of the people should,” Daley said as the closest presidential election in American history headed deep into overtime.

Earlier former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, tapped by Bush to represent him in Florida, said he had seen neither allegations of fraud nor evidence of it. He said the controversial Palm Beach County ballots had been reviewed before the election by both campaigns, “and guess what, there were no complaints until after the election.”

An unofficial tally by The Associated Press showed that Gore had cut Bush’s lead to 403 votes in Florida, with the recount complete in 58 of 67 counties.

State election officials expected to complete the recount today, but said the results wouldn’t be certified until at least Nov. 17. That’s the deadline for ballots cast by military personnel and other Floridians overseas to arrive in the state.

The winner of Florida stood to gain the state’s 25 electoral votes – and the keys to the Oval Office with them.

Bush was in Texas today, Gore in Nashville, as the Florida drama unfolded. Aides to both said they were working on their transition plans – ideas that only one would be in a position to implement.

“We’re having a great run here, thank you,” Gore said with a laugh when questions were called out to him as he was jogging in a park.

Nationally, nearly 48 hours after the polls closed, Bush had won 29 states for 246 electoral votes. Gore had won 18 states plus the District of Columbia for 255. New Mexico and Oregon were too close to call, but they mattered mostly for the record. Neither man could gain the 270 needed for victory without Florida.

The popular vote reflected the nation’s political divisions, as well.

With almost all precincts reporting unofficial results, Gore had 48,942,306 votes and Bush had 48,751,786 – with just 190,520 votes separating them. Only three times before had a presidential candidate lost the popular vote but won the Electoral College, the last time in 1888 when Benjamin Harrison defeated Grover Cleveland.

Apart from Democratic concerns with Florida, Republicans were talking of possible requests for recounts in Iowa and Wisconsin, two states where Gore won narrowly.

At a news conference, Daley said the Democrats would seek a hand recount of the ballots cast Tuesday in Palm Beach, Dade, Broward and Volusia counties – some 1.78 million votes. Dade County includes Miami; Broward is home to Fort Lauderdale; Daytona Beach is in Volusia.

Kendall Coffey, a Democratic attorney also stressed there were other remedies available to the Democrats. “And one of those possibilities is a new election in Palm Beach County,” he said.

While internationally known for the wealth concentrated on Palm Beach island, the county is heavily Democratic. Officials said 19,120 ballots were thrown out before they were counted election night because voters accidentally marked them for more than one presidential candidate.

Three lawsuits, two in state court and one in federal court, were filed in Palm Beach County seeking a new presidential vote in the county.

The federal lawsuit, filed by a Boca Raton man who said he voted by mistake for Buchanan instead of his real choice, Gore, was dropped today.

The drama unfolded in Florida while Attorney General Janet Reno told reporters in Washington said she saw no reason for federal authorities to “jump in” to the controversy. The former Miami prosecutor said she would review any complaints brought to her.

“We are not here to generate controversy,” she said.

There was plenty of that already as Bush and Gore dispatched their emissaries to Florida to protect their interests in a recount of all 67 counties.

Baker said he intended to meet privately with Warren Christopher, also a former secretary of state, deputized by the Gore camp to monitor the recount in Florida. Christopher said he was happy to honor Baker’s request for a meeting, but said Democrats have no intention of forfeiting any legal rights.

Buchanan said on NBC’s “Today” show, “When I took one look at that ballot on election night … it’s very easy for me to see how someone could have voted for me in the belief they voted for Al Gore.”

“But both parties signed off on this particular ballot, and so I don’t see how you can organize another referendum or another vote just for Palm Beach County,” he said.

Bush campaign spokesman Ari Fleischer said all the talk of mistaken votes for Buchanan was itself misleading. “Palm Beach County is a Pat Buchanan stronghold and that’s why Pat Buchanan received 3,407 votes there,” Fleischer said in a statement. “The Democrats who are politicizing and disrupting these routine and predictable events risk doing our democracy a disservice.”

County officials said 19,120 ballots in the presidential race were thrown out before they were counted because voters picked more than one candidate. Only 3,783 voters made that mistake on the U.S. Senate portion of the ballot.

Daley said, “There seems to be no question that this lineup on that ballot in that county … does violate Florida law.”

“We’ve come to believe that there are serious and substantial irregularities resulting from the ballot used only in one county,” added Christopher.

Daley also jabbed at the Bush campaign, saying they “blithely dismiss the disenfranchisement of thousands of Floridians as being the usual mistakes” that afflict elections.

“If the will of the people is to prevail, Al Gore should be awarded a victory in Florida and be our next president,” he asserted.

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

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