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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Bush Camp Backs Off Legal Threat in Oregon

Count: New data that GOP officials sought come through. Strategy now focuses on Wisconsin and New Mexico, where Gore holds slim leads.

November 18, 2000|SCOTT MARTELLE and JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The Bush camp stepped back from a legal showdown with Oregon election officials Friday as the campaign continued to mull a recount in Wisconsin and kept a close eye on the end of vote counting in New Mexico.

Yet those were mere brush fires compared to the firestorm that continues to rage in Florida, where the state Supreme Court on Friday barred the state from certifying election results.

The significance of close presidential races in Oregon, Wisconsin and New Mexico has fluctuated in recent days, driven by the uncertainty in Florida, where Texas Gov. George W. Bush holds a thin lead over Vice President Al Gore.

Nationwide, Republican Bush has 246 electoral votes to Gore's 267, with only Florida's 25 electoral votes still not assigned.

If Gore prevails in Florida, the Democrat would have 292 electoral votes. But if recounts in Oregon (seven electoral votes), New Mexico (five votes) and Wisconsin (11 votes) give those states to Bush--considered highly unlikely--then the candidates would tie at 269, pushing the election's outcome into the House of Representatives. Winning Florida would give Bush 271 electoral votes--and the White House.

The shifting scenarios have made for tense waiting games in the still close states, where local supporters can't act unless the candidates seek recounts.

"We're as curious as anyone," said Mick Walters, spokesman for the Republican Party in Wisconsin, where the Bush campaign must decide by 5 p.m. Wednesday whether to seek a recount in hopes of overturning Gore's 5,800-vote lead. "We have volunteers and legal advisors and other folks lined up and ready to go should that happen. The next step is to hear yea or nay."

In Oregon, the Bush campaign had threatened to seek a court order to force state election officials to compile updated ballot tallies and information on last-minute changes in voter registrations.

Republicans fear that reports of multiple ballots mailed to some voters and questions concerning the handling of last-minute registrations could have opened the door for fraud. State officials referred the campaign to the 36 individual county election offices, where Bush supporters ran into clerks too busy trying to complete the initial vote tally to compile the data.

But Friday the information began flowing--more than a dozen counties came through--and the Bush campaign backed off its threat to seek court intervention, Bush spokeswoman Leslie Goodman said.

"We feel strongly that we need the data to determine if there were any problems," she said.

Gore holds a 6,700-vote lead in Oregon, where the count in the nation's first election to be handled completely through the mail has been delayed by the large influx of last-minute votes, computer problems and a large number of damaged ballots that had to be copied by hand and tabulated.

If Gore's lead slips below roughly 2,700 votes--or one-fifth of 1% of votes cast--there would be an automatic recount under state law. Bush officials have not decided whether to push for a recount if one isn't automatically triggered.

In New Mexico, the last of 33 counties reported results Friday, and Gore had a 481-vote lead, according to an unofficial tally by the Associated Press.

The lead in earlier counts had seesawed between Gore and Bush, and at one point Bush was ahead by just four votes. The official numbers will not be released by the secretary of state until they are certified Nov. 28.

In other close elections, GOP Sen. Slade Gorton clung to an 11,400-vote lead over challenger Maria Cantwell as Washington election officials neared the end of their count Friday. But a large block of votes remained to be counted in King County--home to Seattle--where Cantwell has strong support. The vote isn't expected to be certified until Wednesday.

That race will decide the balance of power in the Senate. If Gorton wins, the Republicans will control the upper house 51-49. Should Cantwell win, the Democrat-Republican mix in the Senate would be 50-50.

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