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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

In This Bitter Fight, the Motto Is: Make Every Ballot Count

Strategy: As accusations fly, it's clear that both campaigns are working every angle for votes.

November 19, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN and SCOTT GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — George W. Bush's surprisingly strong gains from overseas absentee ballots in Florida have confronted Al Gore's campaign with an unexpected threat: the possibility of still losing the election even if it wins the legal fight to include the results of manual recounts in three heavily Democratic counties.

Bush gained more votes from the overseas ballots than either side expected, pushing his official overall lead to 930 votes, according to figures released Saturday.

Those numbers approach the outer edge of what both sides project Gore could gain from the three counties recounting votes: Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade, which is scheduled to begin counting Monday.

"It would be a huge irony to win the legal battle and lose the election anyway," one top Gore aide said.

A senior Bush aide said last week that they expected the two candidates to come out about even in Miami-Dade and Gore to pick up about 100 votes in Broward but potentially 1,000 in Palm Beach. If Gore meets those estimates, he would have about 170 votes more than Bush's current lead--pending any further adjustments to the absentee tallies.

Two senior Gore aides said those estimates mirrored the Democrats' own calculations. One official said Democrats were hoping to win as many as 250 more votes out of Broward, 100 votes out of Dade and at least 600, "if not potentially a lot more than that," out of Palm Beach.

Those numbers still would give Gore a majority, but the margin of error has shriveled to the point where some key Democrats are worried that the vice president could fall short even if the Florida Supreme Court ultimately orders the inclusion of the manually recounted votes in the final result.

"It's possible, but that 900-plus is a big number," Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) said.

The prospect that the outcome may remain achingly close, even with the manually recounted votes, has created an irresistible incentive for each side to contest virtually every vote.

That dynamic is encouraging endless conflicts in the recounts themselves, with Republicans accusing Democrats of mishandling ballots, and Democrats accusing the GOP of undermining the process by filing excessive objections to disputed ballots. In both Texas and Florida on Saturday, Bush officials dramatically escalated their criticism of the recount process, describing it as rife with error--a charge that the Gore campaign immediately dismissed.

The belief that every vote may prove vital has encouraged both parties to challenge results on other fronts. On Friday, one Democratic activist in Florida's Seminole County filed suit seeking to invalidate 4,700 absentee ballots that Democrats claim the county's election supervisor, a Republican, improperly helped the GOP to complete.

Unprecedented Political Combat

On Saturday, Bush aides immediately urged an investigation of a Miami Herald report that 39 convicted felons may have improperly voted in Broward and Miami-Dade counties--and charged the Gore campaign with systematically seeking to disqualify absentee ballots from military personnel abroad.

This political equivalent of house-to-house combat may be unprecedented in modern American history. It suggests that both sides are searching for ways to patch together a bare majority even if the Florida Supreme Court rules against them on the paramount question of whether to include the manually recounted ballots. "I don't know where it ends," sighed one Republican close to the Bush camp.

Bush's 630-vote gain from the overseas absentee ballots exceeded what either campaign expected; Democrats had hoped he might net only 300 to 400 votes. Bush aides had said they were hoping for a gain of 400 to 500 votes.

On Saturday, Bush advisors signaled that they hope to expand that margin further. Racicot and Bush spokeswoman Mindy Tucker charged that Democrats had systematically sought to disqualify absentee ballots from overseas military personnel; the campaign said it was mulling legal challenges meant to reinstate between 400 and 1,500 military ballots that were disqualified, mostly on grounds that they were not postmarked before election day.

Gore is Stuck Playing Catch-Up

Any votes Bush gains on that front, of course, raises the bar even higher for Gore in the manual recounts now proceeding across Southeast Florida.

Early results in Palm Beach and Broward counties have shown only small gains for Gore; with more than one-third of the precincts recounted in Broward, for instance, Gore had netted 79 votes, local officials said. Palm Beach has only released figures covering four precincts; they showed a four-vote gain for Bush.

But those figures may not accurately reflect the vice president's potential gains in these counties because so many ballots have been challenged by the partisan observers and set aside for the three-member county canvassing commissions to judge later. In Palm Beach alone, about one in every six ballots is being contested.

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