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Bush Builds Lead on Overseas Vote

Republicans Launch Fierce Attack on Florida Hand Counting

Election: Democrats and the GOP clash in the courts, the tabulation centers and in the battlefield of public opinion. Partisans allege mishandling of ballots, attempts to stall process.


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Republicans launched a concerted effort Saturday to delay and discredit the hand counting of Florida's presidential ballots, even as a tally of overseas votes widened George W. Bush's lead to 930.

But the hand counting showed Al Gore continuing to whittle away at Bush's margin. The vice president netted 79 votes in the recount of 259 of Broward County's 609 precincts, and tallying continued in Palm Beach County.

On a day the principals stayed out of sight, partisans battled on multiple fronts--lawyers in the state Supreme Court and Seminole County, Republicans and Democrats elbow-to-elbow inside overheated tabulation centers. As fingers jabbed and tempers flared, the Bush campaign worked to stir doubts about the integrity of the recount process.

Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, enlisted by the Bush campaign to help undermine the effort, asserted that paper ballots had been mislaid, mishandled and deliberately miscounted. "I think when the American people learn about these things they're going to say, 'What in the name of God is going on here?' " Racicot told reporters at a news conference in Austin, Texas.

At one point, the dispute grew so bitter--and so ludicrous--that Republicans in Broward County accused Democrats of swallowing chads, the little pieces of paper that fall out when a ballot is punched. The incident "underscores that the process is running amok," said Ken Lisaius, a spokesman for the county GOP.

The Gore campaign accused Bush operatives of deliberately attempting "to politicize a process that ought to be governed by our laws."

"The difference between the two camps could not be clearer," said Chris Lehane, a Gore spokesman. "Al Gore wants a hand recount because it guarantees the will of the people will be reflected. The Bush campaign is doing everything possible to impede that from happening."

The vote count in Florida fluctuated as the hand tallying continued throughout the day but stayed within the same narrow spectrum: an infinitesimal fraction of the 6 million ballots cast Nov. 7. Bush pulled ahead by 930 votes after the overseas absentee ballots broke nearly 2 to 1 in his favor, with Bush picking up 1,380 votes to Gore's 750.

About 1,400 overseas ballots were disqualified for various reasons, and Republicans said they were contemplating still another lawsuit challenging those decisions.

Secretary of State Katherine Harris released the overseas vote totals unceremoniously, in contrast to her earlier plans to certify the election and award Florida to Bush--making him president-elect, pending further litigation.

The Bush campaign issued a low-key statement, saying the Texas governor and running mate Dick Cheney were "pleased that the returns from the overseas absentee ballots have increased their lead in the state of Florida."

Harris' more elaborate plans were halted when the state Supreme Court on Friday unanimously blocked certification of the election returns at least until a hearing at 2 p.m. EST Monday.

In legal briefs filed Saturday, Gore's attorneys asked the high court to include hand-counted ballots in the final certified results, charging that Harris, a Republican and strong Bush backer, is playing a "Kafkaesque" game of changing her position to shut off further counting.

Gore's lawyers also attacked the reliability of computers for counting ballots--the method used on election day and in a mandatory statewide recount--and said hand counting provides a more accurate total.

"Machine reading of punch card ballots will predictably misread a certain percentage of ballots," the brief says. "In a close election, that percentage will affect the results of an election."

Attorneys for Bush are due to respond today.

The two sides battled Saturday on a second legal front as well, as a judge in Seminole County took up a suit by Democrats asking that 4,700 absentee ballots be tossed out because GOP operatives inappropriately filled in missing voter identification numbers. Judge Debra S. Nelson set a date of Nov. 27 to hear the complaint.

The lawsuit says that Bush received 10,005 absentee votes in Seminole County, near Orlando, while Gore tallied 5,209 votes. If the mishandled ballots cannot be identified, the suit asks that all absentee ballots in the county be declared invalid.

Apart from the unceasing legal fight, both Democrats and Republicans have aggressively sought to mold popular opinion during their 11-day standoff.

After failing to block the hand counting in various court venues, the Bush campaign Saturday stepped up its efforts to convince the public that the process was corrupt and inherently flawed.

At a briefing in Austin, the campaign produced Racicot, who cited "clear and convincing evidence" of irregularities in Palm Beach County, including elderly counters who were "overworked and burned out" and a report in Saturday's Miami Herald that at least 39 felons had illegally cast absentee ballots in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

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