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Advantage Gore, but It's Still Anybody's Game


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The Florida Supreme Court decision Friday to block final certification of the state's presidential election results advances one of Al Gore's top goals, giving him an opportunity to shape public opinion and the legal environment by allowing manual recounts to continue.

Gore's camp believes its political and legal situation will be strengthened if further court decisions do not come until the recounts in three Florida counties reduce or eliminate George W. Bush's narrow official lead in the state.

And by blocking Secretary of State Katherine Harris from certifying a final result today--and not scheduling its own hearing until Monday--the Florida Supreme Court has provided more time for those vote counts to continue, possibly long enough to place Gore unofficially ahead of Bush. Gore received a second legal boost Friday when a federal appellate court rejected Bush's request for an injunction to halt the manual tallies.

Both of those decisions were huge boosts for Gore. At the core of the Gore strategy is the conviction that if the vice president takes the lead in Florida, even unofficially, the courts and the country will be extremely reluctant to overturn that result.

In effect, the Gore campaign is hoping the recounts create what diplomats call "facts on the ground": circumstances so compelling that they become effectively impossible to reverse.

"Our case becomes much more powerful when people see the votes for Gore," said Mark D. Fabiani, the Gore campaign's communications director. "It becomes very hard then, either legally or morally, not to have those votes counted."

Even some Republicans fear Fabiani is right. If the manual recounts now underway put Gore ahead, and then the state court upholds Harris' decision earlier this week not to recognize those votes, "there will be the largest outcry you ever heard in your life," predicted Tom Slade, a former chairman of the Florida Republican Party.

"If Gore moves into the lead, you will have white heat," agreed UCLA law professor Daniel H. Lowenstein, the former director of California's Fair Political Practices Commission under Gov. Jerry Brown.

This scenario, though, isn't without risk for Gore. If the recounts produce little progress for him over the weekend, some observers believe the Florida Supreme Court might be more likely to consider his challenge moot and rule against him. And privately, the Gore campaign isn't certain that the recount will give him enough new votes to overcome the increase in Bush's lead provided by the overseas absentee ballots.

The Florida high court's decision surprised both camps and legal observers.

What was particularly surprising to some observers was that the court stepped in to "preserve the status quo" on its own, an unusual move.

For now, the state Supreme Court decision Friday stunned the Bush camp. The campaign had been planning for the Texas governor and running mate Dick Cheney to make some kind of victory statement today if, as expected, the overseas absentee ballots now being counted give Bush a lead that Harris can certify as final.

One aide said Bush officials were still optimistic that the state Supreme Court would uphold Harris' discretion to reject the results from the manual recounts. But he acknowledged that Friday's decision had sent spirits plummeting only hours after Leon County Circuit Judge Terry P. Lewis had cheered Bush partisans by upholding Harris' authority earlier Friday morning.

And there is no telling how long it will go on. The Florida Supreme Court set a hearing for Monday, but it is not clear when the justices will rule.

Bush advisors had hoped that if Harris certified Bush's victory this weekend, a demand for closure would dissolve public patience to wait for the results of recounts underway in heavily Democratic Palm Beach and Broward counties. On Friday, Miami-Dade County reversed an earlier decision and authorized its own countywide manual recount.

Now those counties have been guaranteed at least three more days to count votes. And that could yield Gore enough gains to overcome the lead Bush has enjoyed in every official and unofficial tally here since the election, analysts in both campaigns believe.

Bush led by 300 votes in the results Harris certified earlier this week. Bush appears to be netting the 400 to 500 new votes his campaign projected he would accumulate from the overseas absentee ballots.

But senior Bush advisors worry that even a lead of 800 votes could be eclipsed by the hand recounts now underway. Neither side expects the Miami-Dade recount to produce a significant advantage for either man. But Bush aides say that the Broward recount could produce a net gain of at least 100 votes for Gore, and that Palm Beach could produce as many as 1,000 more for Gore.

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