By RON FOURNIER
WASHINGTON — In a jolting turnabout, George W. Bush’s lead in Florida is suddenly in peril — and his carefully crafted image as the most-likely-to-succeed presidential candidate could fade with each newfound vote for Al Gore.
It’s Bush’s turn to play defense.
The Florida Supreme Court voted 4-3 Friday to order manual recounts across the state to review as many as 45,000 ballots on which there was no vote for president picked up by tabulating machines. The seven justices also added 383 votes to Gore’s totals, apparently shaving Bush’s 537-vote margin to 154 votes — out of 6 million cast.
His lead and chief political advantage in jeopardy, Bush immediately asked the U.S. Supreme Court to block the recounts. And the Texas governor stood ready to dip into an arsenal of political weapons, including a GOP-led Florida Legislature willing to anoint Bush the victor regardless of the recounts and a Republican Congress that may yet be dragged into the morass.
"Oh Lord," said Donna Concroft, a Jefferson County elections supervisor. "I thought it was fixin’ to be over."
Not even close.
An overwhelming majority of counties with the questionable ballots supported Bush, but number crunchers in both camps predicted Friday night that Gore stands to gain from scattered recounts. Even in GOP counties, Democratic voters tend to live in areas using antiquated voting machines that misread the most ballots, they said.
Gore’s team believes they would net at least 300 votes in Miami-Dade County alone, maybe twice that much if the canvassing board uses a liberal standard in an attempt to discern voters’ intent. Senior Bush advisers didn’t dispute the figures.
The simple but striking math forced Bush to fight the recount ruling. If he fails, the Texas governor fears he will quickly fall behind Gore, banished to the same uncomfortable spot from which the vice president has fought since Election Day: second place.
"No elected official can ignore the full count of a state endorsed by the state’s highest court, and we’ll have that in a few days," said Gore deputy chief of staff Mark Fabiani. "He can hold all the photo-ops he wants with the people he hopes to hire in the Bush administration, but if he falls behind us in the vote count, it doesn’t mean a thing."
Bush tried to force Gore from the race by playing the part of president-elect — naming his White House chief of staff, leaking Cabinet picks and posing for pictures in presidential postures. He and his troops declared victory, again and again.
Gore fought back in the courts, but kept swinging at air until the Supreme Court salvaged his presidential dreams Friday night, even as Democratic lawmakers were counting him out and his own advisers were making plans for a dignified exit from politics.
Now the vice president gets to play offense. He hopes to capture the lead and press for Bush’s surrender — just as Bush had done to him. "We urge everyone to let the counting — supervised by the independent judiciary — to proceed without interference to a speedy conclusion," Gore chairman Bill Daley said.
Bush’s point man in Florida, James Baker, reacted the same way he did when the state high court extended the deadline last month for recounts. He lashed out at Gore and the court.
"This is what happens when for the first time in modern history a candidate resorts to lawsuits to try to overturn the outcome of an election for president," he said, knowing Gore has now come perilously close to doing just that. "It is sad for Florida. It is sad for the nation. And it is sad for democracy."
But Baker has prepared for this moment.
He quietly built alliances with the Legislature, advising GOP lawmakers about how the U.S. Constitution might enable them to deliver the presidency to Bush. The Legislature convened a historic special session Friday to appoint a slate of electors, saying the action was required to ensure that Florida is represented in the Dec. 18 meeting of the Electoral College. Gore’s lawyers are preparing to challenge the Legislature’s slate.
If the Democrat tops Bush in the vote count, it is possible Florida will have two competing slates — one for each candidate — and the dispute would spill into Congress.
A number of senior advisers to both Bush and Gore predicted political warfare lasting for weeks and ending with a divided nation. Others, less pessimistic, argued that nothing about this topsy turvy election is predictable.
"This is just another dip in the roller coaster," said Juleanna Glover Weiss, spokeswoman for GOP vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney.
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