Gore dealt double blow, options running out on presidential race

By RON FOURNIER

Associated Press

Al Gore’s prospects for assuming the presidency dimmed today when a circuit court judge refused his request to overturn George W. Bush’s certified victory in Florida and the U.S. Supreme Court turned aside a ruling that had favored manual recounts. Running out of options, the vice president’s team pleaded with Democrats to stick with him a few more days.

"They won. We lost. We’re appealing" to the Florida Supreme Court, said Gore attorney David Boies after Circuit Judge N. Sanders Sauls refused to order recounts in two Democratic counties. "We’ve moved one step closer to having this resolved."

It was, Gore’s advisers conceded, a major step in the wrong direction.

Neither decision settled the contested race or untangled any of the legal knots tying up the election of a 43rd American president, but the developments were a severe blow for Gore. He is urgently searching for a quick court victory to sustain his presidential quest.

On Day 27 of the longest, closest presidential race in a century, running mate Joseph Lieberman and top Gore advisers called Democrats on Capitol Hill to explain the whirlwind of legal developments and urge them to remain steadfast. One senior Democrat who participated in the talks said there was no sense of quitting from the Gore team.

However, the vice president’s advisers said privately that Gore was running out of time and options.

They said he would await word from the Florida Supreme Court and from a lawsuit in Seminole County over irregular handling of GOP absentee ballots before deciding whether to concede. If he loses both cases, Gore is almost certain to give up, advisers said.

That timetable means the race could be over in a matter of days if Gore doesn’t catch a quick legal break.

"This is going to be resolved by the Florida Supreme Court. I think whoever wins at the Florida Supreme Court, we’ll accept that," Boies said, setting an end date on the long-count election for the first time.

Democrats were glum, though they seemed to be heeding Gore’s request to remain patient until the Florida Supreme Court rules.

"I think perception-wise it’s been difficult and a real negative" day," said Sen. John Breaux, D-La., a moderate under consideration for a post in the presumptive Bush Cabinet. "But legally, it’s not."

"I think we’re down but not out," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md. "This was a punch that knocked him down, but it didn’t knock him out."

Republicans increased their calls for Gore to concede.

"How many defeats are enough?" said Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., the fourth-ranking member of the House. "The time has come for the vice president to admit defeat."

"Al Gore is facing the longest week of his political life," said Scott Reed, a GOP operative who ran Bob Dole’s failed 1996 presidential campaign. "Time has run out, but he won’t give up."

Andrew Card, Bush’s prospective chief of staff, said the day’s court rulings had clearly buoyed the Bush camp and given new impetus to efforts to form a new Bush government.

"We’ll be able to move pretty quickly," once there is either a conclusive court ruling or a Gore concession, Card said in an interview.

Still, "I don’t expect any announcements this week, at least Cabinet announcements," he added.

"The Supreme Court ruling legitimizes many of our concerns. It did point out or justify some of the angst we had expressed about the Florida Supreme Court ruling," Card said.

Just three days after hearing historic arguments, the U.S. Supreme Court invited Florida’s top court to clarify its reasons for extending the deadline for hand-counted ballots in some Democratic counties. A spokesman for the state high court said the justices would reply to the order.

Bush called the Supreme Court ruling "a very strong statement on our behalf." While posing for pictures in front of a garland-strung hearth, Bush told reporters he was dispatching running mate Dick Cheney to Capitol Hill to meet with GOP leaders to continue making plans for a presumptive Bush presidency.

Hours later, Sauls ruled that Gore "failed to carry the requisite burden of proof" in the unprecedented legal challenge to Bush’s 537-vote certified victory.

Florida’s seven justices, all of whom were appointed by Democratic governors, had ordered Secretary of State Katherine Harris to accept recount totals for several days after the state’s Nov. 14 deadline. Bush appealed, but the Supreme Court did not rule on the merits of his filing.

By passing the case back to Florida, the nation’s highest court leaves in doubt gains made by Gore through manual recounts after Nov. 14. Those totals trimmed Bush’s lead from 930 votes to 537 out of 6 million cast.

In Florida, the state’s House speaker, a Republican, prepared to approve a special session to choose presidential electors — presumably supporters of Bush. But the effort was moving slowly and lawmakers still needed the consent of the cautious Senate president, Republican John McKay

Bush’s political operatives have signaled to McKay that they approve of his go-slow approach, fearing backlash from voters under an intense public relations campaign by Democrats.

Bush himself urged caution, telling reporters who asked about the legislative fight: "We ought to take this process one day at a time."

A Washington Post-ABC News survey suggested that 56 percent of Americans want the Legislature to avoid the unsettled presidential election. Equal numbers want Congress to butt out, though the U.S. Constitution gives state and federal lawmakers a role in the Electoral College process.

Gore’s team was organizing a campaign to discredit the Legislature and the state’s Republican governor, Bush brother Jeb Bush.

Gore himself was briefed Sunday by his legal team about potential legal options to counter the Florida Legislature. Gore’s lawyers argue that the U.S. Constitution gives legislatures the power to select electors but Congress sets the date for them to be picked. That date, they argue, was the Nov. 7 election; the Florida legislature established the rules for that election and now has no further input on the selection of electors, Gore lawyers say.

Officials familiar with the meeting stressed that Gore was not asked to sign off on any legal action against the Legislature and did not authorize any.

Gore, Bush, lawmakers in Florida, congressmen in Washington and scores of judges presiding over the more than 40 lawsuits are focused on two deadlines: Dec. 12, when state electors are chosen, and Dec. 18, when the Electoral College meets.

Without a clear resolution, the Constitution throws the election in the laps of a divided Congress.

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

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