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Vote Fight Hits the Courts

Florida Sets Deadline as GOP Suit to Stop Recount Is Rejected

Decision to Certify Final Results Today, if Upheld, Could Hand Election to Bush


MIAMI — A federal court judge Monday rejected George W. Bush's effort to block hand counting of hundreds of thousands of disputed presidential ballots. But the Florida head of elections sparked a new legal fight by setting a deadline for all votes to be tallied by the end of business today.

Attorneys for Al Gore joined county officials who rushed to court to overturn today's 5 p.m. EST cutoff set by Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a Republican who campaigned for Bush and served as a delegate at his nominating convention in Philadelphia. If upheld, Harris' decision could hand Florida--and thus the presidency--to the GOP nominee, who clings to a narrow lead in unofficial returns.

After hearing roughly two hours of arguments, Leon County Circuit Judge Terry P. Lewis--a Democratic appointee--said he would rule this morning on whether to block Harris from enforcing the deadline. Lewis questioned how state law could give a county an option to do a hand recount "and you don't give them an opportunity to do it. That seems futile."

One week after the presidential election ended in a deadlock, the fight for the White House spiraled into a series of rolling court battles and a hail of recriminations, with Bush suffering the latest setback.

Speaking in public for the first time in days, Democratic nominee Gore sought to stand apart from the increasingly bitter legal battle. Appearing in Washington, with the White House as a solemn backdrop, the vice president portrayed his efforts as a fight for the integrity of the election process.

"I would not want to win the presidency by a few votes cast in error or misinterpreted or not counted, and I don't think Gov. Bush wants that either," he told reporters, smiling softly throughout a brief appearance. "So having enough patience to spend the days necessary to hear exactly what the American people have said is really the most important thing."

Bush remained secluded at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. But Karen Hughes, his campaign spokeswoman, accused Gore of trying to subvert the will of voters.

"Today, the vice president essentially said we should ignore the law, so that he can overturn the results of this election," Hughes said in a statement to reporters outside the Governor's Mansion in downtown Austin.

She defended Harris as an independently elected official who made "an objective decision based on the law of Florida."

Although Gore edged Bush in the popular vote nationally and leads slightly in the electoral college, neither candidate can claim the White House without Florida's 25 electoral votes. An unofficial canvass by the Associated Press put Bush ahead in the Sunshine State by 388 votes out of roughly 6 million cast. But an undetermined number of absentee ballots from overseas are outstanding.

Also, officials in two Democratic-leaning counties--Palm Beach and Miami-Dade--are either considering or prepared to begin hand counting hundreds of thousands of ballots to determine if any votes were missed.

Bush suffered a defeat Monday when a judge rejected his bid for a court order blocking those hand counts.

Hand-Count Ruling a Defeat for Bush

Theodore Olson, attorney for the Republican Party, insisted the hand recounts should be prevented because they are arbitrary and lack clear standards, thus inviting partisan mischief. "This manual process has introduced uncertainty and chaos" into the election, Olson asserted.

But attorney Laurence Tribe, representing Gore, said the state of Florida "has provided an elaborate framework for resolving these questions." In seeking to stop the recount, he said, the GOP was trying "to enshrine in darkness what the will of the people was."

Bruce Rogow, counsel for the Palm Beach County Board of Elections, described the hand recount as representing "democracy at its best, open and fair, without secrets. Is it messy? Does it go on and on?" he asked rhetorically. "Yes, it does. But that's what democracy is about."

After a three-hour hearing, U.S. District Judge Donald Middlebrooks said Palm Beach County's recount procedures "appear to be neutral," giving him no reason to intervene.

"The federal court has a very limited role and should not intervene unless there are clearly shown constitutional violations," he said.

Middlebrooks, an appointee of President Clinton, seemed happy to be done with the matter. "I'm under no illusion that I'm the final word on this," he said before the hearing even began. "In fact, I take great comfort in that."

Separately, state officials in Tallahassee took their own steps to bring a quick end to the disputed election, saying they would certify final results today at 5 p.m., regardless of whether counties are finished tallying their vote.

Harris insisted that Florida law required the cutoff. She said the pertinent statute allows extension of the deadline, set for one week after election day, in the case of unforeseen circumstances, such as a natural disaster.

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