Gore dealt setback as Fla. county halts recount

By RON FOURNIER

Associated Press

In a dizzying turn of events, Florida’s largest county abruptly stopped recounting votes Wednesday, sending Al Gore’s lawyers scrambling back to court to keep a ballot-by-ballot fight for the White House grinding away. George W. Bush asked the Supreme Court to shut down all the recounts or risk a constitutional crisis.

"I won the vote in Florida," Bush said — a point that could hardly be more in dispute. He accused the Democrats of monkeying with laws to reverse the election’s "legitimate result."

Bush was temporarily reeling from a Florida Supreme Court ruling late Tuesday night that said manual recounts could continue until Sunday in the state that will determine America’s 43rd president. Bush is clinging to a 930-vote lead out of 6 million cast.

Standing in front of a presidential-blue backdrop, the Texas governor accused the state Supreme Court of overreaching, and he had choice words for Democrats, too. "I believe Secretary Cheney and I won the vote in Florida. And I believe some are determined to keep counting in an effort to change the legitimate result," he said.

Republican allies were even more outspoken as they fanned out across Florida.

"If we were not witnessing, in effect, the stealing of a presidential election it would be laughable," said Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, whose district includes part of Miami-Dade County.

Bush’s fortunes shifted with stunning speed. Within two hours of his news conference, a three-member elections board in predominantly Democratic Miami-Dade County voted to scrap its recount. If the decision stands, Gore’s presidential dreams would rest with two other southeast coast counties — Palm Beach and Broward — where his advisers feared there were not enough votes to catch Bush.

"We hope the counts continue," said Gore’s campaign chairman, William Daley.

Gore appealed the Miami-Dade decision, but a state appeals court refused Wednesday night to force a return to recount work. Democrats said they would appeal to the Florida Supreme Court.

Senior advisers said the vice president’s slimming prospects depended upon the two remaining counties broadening their standards for validating votes, no sure thing, or a court forces Miami-Dade to recount — also a long shot.

Also in the day’s swirl of events:

  • Bush’s lawyers appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, accusing the state’s high court of allowing "selective, arbitrary and standardless" recounts. Without a decision by the high court, "the consequences may well include the ascension of a president of questionable legitimacy, or a constitutional crisis," the appeal said.

  • Bush filed suit in a Florida court asking 13 counties with heavy military populations to count overseas ballots. Hundreds of ballots, many from military outposts, were rejected last week when Democratic lawyers urged county boards to scrutinize them. Both sides believe Bush lost more votes than Gore in the rejected ballots.

  • A Palm Beach County judge said officials must consider "dimpled chad" punch-card ballots — those that show an indentation but no perforation. However, Judge Jorge Labarga said elections officials can reject the questionable ballots after trying to determine the voters’ intent. Elections board chief Charles Burton said both sides will be able to make their case Friday, but on first glance he didn’t think the ruling would change the way his board has judged ballots, a bad sign for Gore who wants the county to loosen its standards.

  • Florida’s GOP-majority Legislature considered trying to select the state’s 25 electors and awarding the White House to the candidate of its choice, regardless of who wins the state’s popular-vote contest. "The Legislature may have to step in and select those electors," the House GOP leader said. Bush’s team has held open this possibility as a last-ditch way of claiming the White House.

  • House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, said Republican leaders would be prepared to contest the outcome of Florida’s recount if it does not appear to be legitimate. Under the Constitution, members of the House and Senate can object to acceptance of electoral votes, subject to a vote of the entire Congress.

    Gore had picked up 129 votes on the recounts, forcing Bush’s lead to 801. Gore would have cut much deeper into Bush’s total if Miami-Dade’s hand counts were added — 157 for Gore before counting was suspended.

    The board, one Democrat and two members who don’t list a party affiliation, cited the court’s Sunday deadline for its reversal. "It would be a minor feat and miracle for us to do it" by Sunday, said canvassing board chairman Lawrence King.

    The turnabout followed a raucous morning at the vote-counting center. Well-organized Republicans protested the board’s decision Tuesday to turn its attention exclusively to an estimated 10,000 ballots that were not punched through cleanly on Election Day.

    In a scene carried on national TV, security officers jostled with protesters outside the counting room. "Cheaters! Let us in!" the demonstrators yelled.

    Both sides believed those 10,000 ballots would boost Gore’s totals, and possibly allow him to overtake Bush. Republicans cried foul, saying GOP precincts — and potential Bush gains — would be ignored.

    After the vote to stop counting, Florida GOP chairman Al Cardenas said, "Finally, we’re getting some semblance of the rule of law here."

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

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