By DAVID ESPO
George W. Bush took on the work, if not the title, of president-elect today, meeting with a top aide to discuss a transition to the White House. Al Gore looked to the courts to keep his election challenge alive.
“We may just open our own transition office,” said Andy Card, Bush’s choice for White House chief of staff, as he arrived at the Texas state Capitol on the morning after the GOP ticket was certified the winner in Florida’s make-or-break election.
The government agency responsible for securing official transition offices in Washington has said it won’t yet turn the keys over to the Republicans. But Card said, “We know how important it is to keep moving.”
Gore’s lawyers said they were going to court in Tallahassee, the Florida capital, to object formally to the certification, taking a step known as a “contest” under state law. Republicans said Bush aides will aggressively fight Gore’s contests in the counties targeted by the vice president: Palm Beach, Miami-Dade and Nassau.
“This is something that’s too important to be decided in a partisan environment,” David Boies, a Gore lawyer, said on NBC’s “Today” show. “This is something that ought to be decided by impartial judges.”
An overnight poll by ABC and The Washington Post found that 60 percent of those surveyed thought the vice president should concede. Thirty-five percent said he should not.
Gore himself was expected to speak publicly later in the day, and outline his reasons for continuing to challenge for the White House.
In the meantime, the Democrats’ congressional leaders, Sen. Tom Daschle and Rep. Dick Gephardt, were flying to Florida to lend support to the vice president’s decision to fight on.
Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a Bush partisan, certified the Texas governor the winner by 537 votes out of roughly 6 million cast. But Gore dispatched a phalanx of surrogates Sunday night to make clear he wasn’t ready to concede.
“The integrity of our self-government is too important to cast into doubt,” running mate Joseph Lieberman said, reflecting Democratic objections over the manual recounts in Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Nassau counties.
Bush, the Texas governor, said Sunday night that Gore should give up the contest.
“If the vice president chooses to go forward, he is filing a contest to the outcome of the election,” he said. “And that is not the best route for America.”
One Democrat said today that Gore should probably give up. “I have great doubts about whether it is wise … for the vice president to continue to pursue and to contest the results in Florida,” Robert Reich, former labor secretary, said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
Reich had endorsed Gore’s rival in the primaries, Bill Bradley.
Bush and Lieberman made their comments Sunday night, shortly after Harris awarded the GOP ticket of Bush and Dick Cheney the 25 electoral votes they needed for victory in the race for the White House.
“On behalf of the state elections canvassing commission, and in accordance with the laws of the state of Florida, I hereby declare Governor George W. Bush the winner of Florida’s 25 electoral votes,” said Harris.
The remarks touched off a wave of noisy cheering from Bush supporters gathered outside the state government building where Harris and other members of the state canvassing board signed multiple copies of the official certification.
And within minutes, the two campaigns had plunged into a fresh round of maneuvering, as Democrats sought to build public support for continuing the struggle, and Republicans bid to close out the race for the White House.
“This has been a hard-fought election,” Bush said in the state Capitol in Austin. “But now that the votes are counted, it is time for the votes to count.”
He said he had asked Cheney to “work with President Clinton’s administration to open a transition office in Washington.” He also said he had named Card to serve as his chief of staff.
It wasn’t clear how fast Cheney could get an office up and running, though. Beth Newburger, a spokeswoman for the federal General Services Administration, said that “as long as there is not an apparent winner, and the outcome is unclear, there’s not much we can do.”
Lieberman went before the cameras within moments of Harris’ certification. “What is at issue here is nothing less than every American’s simple, sacred right to vote,” he said.
Referring to the ballots that were uncounted in various manual recounts, or else counted but rejected by Harris, he asked, “How can we teach our children that every vote counts if we are not willing to make a good-faith effort to count every vote?”
But the Republicans countered that the votes have been counted – over and over and over – and Bush and Cheney emerged ahead each time.
“At some point, the law must prevail and the lawyers must go home. We have reached that point,” said former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, speaking on Bush’s behalf. Even so, he said Bush will not drop his case before the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the validity of manual recounts.
The high court has set arguments in Washington on Friday.
The manual recounting proved as controversial at its end as it was at its beginning.
In Palm Beach County, members of the local canvassing board wrote Harris without success seeking an extension beyond a 5 p.m. Sunday deadline. They said that with a few more hours work, they could make it all the way through an estimated 10,000 ballots.
“The secretary of state has apparently decided to shut us down with approximately two hours to go,” said Charles Burton, head of the county canvassing board.
Board members, who had been at work virtually around the clock since Saturday morning, paused briefly in their work to fax incomplete precinct-by-precinct totals to Harris’ office. They then returned to their counting, completing the last of the questionable ballots later in the evening.
By then, Harris had rejected the incomplete count, saying they fail to comply with state law. She instead accepted results from the last machine count, on Nov. 14, a decision that deprived Gore of 180 votes he gained in the partial recount.
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