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Florida Tally Still in Doubt

Democrats Ready Lawsuit as Bush's Margin Is Dwindling

Gore Official Demands Recount by Hand in Four Counties; Some Numbers Yet to Come In


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Hopes faded Thursday for a quick resolution of the disputed presidential election, as George W. Bush's lead shrank in an unofficial count and Al Gore challenged the legitimacy of the vote.

The chairman of Gore's campaign threatened to sue, if necessary, to block Bush from taking the White House and demanded a hand count of several thousand ballots. "If the will of the people is to prevail, Al Gore should be awarded a victory in Florida and be our next president of the United States," said chairman Bill Daley.

Bush aides claimed the vice president was trying to rerun a race they believe he lost at the ballot box. "Our democratic process calls for a vote on election day. It does not call for us to continue voting until someone likes the outcome," Don Evans, Bush's campaign chairman, replied.

On yet another remarkable day of political drama, filled with intrigue and invective, Florida election officials said completion of a mandatory recount will take at least a few more days.

They announced Thurday that the recount had been completed in 53 of their state's 67 counties and that each candidate had picked up an additional 526 votes, leaving Bush in front by 1,784 out of a total of nearly 6 million cast.

But a survey conducted by Associated Press found that, with 66 of the counties contacted, Bush's lead had fallen to just 229 votes. Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris did not dispute the accuracy of the AP count.

Regardless, the tally will continue to change and the outcome apparently will not be known for at least another week, the deadline for counting ballots trickling in from Florida residents living overseas.

In other developments, at least eight lawsuits challenging Florida's results were filed in state or federal court by Gore supporters, including six in Palm Beach County and two in Tallahassee, where racial discrimination was alleged.

Sowing further confusion, officials in Oregon said Gore had pulled ahead there in the fight for the state's seven electoral votes. But Gore's lead was so narrow--2,192 votes out of more than 1.5 million cast--it could trigger a recount once all the votes are tallied.

In New Mexico, with five electoral votes, a count of 67,000 ballots in Bernalillo County continued, with Gore clinging to a 10,000-vote lead over Bush. The ballots were not counted right away because of a computer error.

With those two states and Florida still hanging in the balance, Gore had 255 electoral votes, Bush 246. Florida, with 25 electoral votes, still appeared to be the key to determining which candidate garners the 270 needed to claim the presidency.

But Republicans added still more uncertainty Thursday by saying they might seek a recount in Iowa and Wisconsin, which Gore carried by fewer than 6,500 votes apiece. The Bush camp was awaiting the outcome in Florida before deciding how to proceed in those two states, which count for a total of 18 electoral votes.

Nationwide, Gore continued to lead Bush narrowly in the popular vote by about 200,000 votes out of 100 million cast. The margin is the smallest since 1960, when John F. Kennedy beat Richard Nixon by 118,574 votes.

Nixon swiftly conceded that election despite strong suspicions of voting irregularities and even fraud. On Thursday, some scholars said Gore should consider that example.

"I think Vice President Gore has a very important decision to make, whether he wants to take the statesmanlike approach and accept the results as reported by the state of Florida, or whether he wants to pursue every reported or alleged irregularity or impropriety," said James Lengle, a Georgetown University expert on presidential elections.

By prolonging the uncertainty, he suggested, "the dignity of the process ends up being violated, people lose faith in their public officials and political institutions."

But Alan Brinkley, a professor of history at Columbia University, suggested it may already be too late to avoid furor over Tuesday's vote.

"The idea has become enough planted in the media and in the minds of Democrats that [Gore] has been cheated out of the presidency," Brinkley said. "On the other hand, a successful court challenge would leave the Republicans feeling they were cheated out of the presidency.

"I don't think the republic's going to fall, regardless of what happens," Brinkley said. "But certainly in the short term, I don't see any happy solution."

The outcome in Florida--and thus the presidential campaign--remained clouded by allegations of irregularities, much of it centering on a confusing election ballot in Palm Beach County. Some Gore supporters there fear they may have cast votes for the Reform Party's Pat Buchanan by mistake or that their ballots were unfairly disqualified.

Both sides have dispatched dozens of lawyers and political operatives to the state and also launched fund-raising drives to finance their postelection efforts.

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