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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS | POLITICAL ANALYSIS

Gore Must Now Slip Through Narrow Window

November 22, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — With its unambiguous insistence that the results of manual recounts must be included in Florida's final election result, the state Supreme Court on Tuesday night shifted the focus of the presidential election to a simple question: Can Al Gore gain enough votes from the process to overcome George W. Bush's official, uncertified 930-vote lead in the relatively narrow window the court established for the recounts to proceed?

The decision gave Gore a new breath of life by overruling Secretary of State Katherine Harris and stating that she cannot certify a winner in Florida until manual recounts are completed in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties. But Gore's hopes could flicker if the recounts continue to produce fewer new votes than his campaign expected.

Still, the decision dispirited Republicans, who fear that vote-counters in these three heavily Democratic counties will find some way to produce enough votes to make Gore the next president--even if they must complete work by the 5 p.m. EST Sunday deadline established by the court. (The deadline will be extended to 9 a.m. Monday if the secretary of state's offices are closed over the holiday weekend.)

And while Bush attorneys--who largely expected an adverse decision--already have laid the groundwork for a federal court appeal, some campaign insiders privately remain dubious that the federal judiciary will overrule Florida's top court on a matter of state law.

The decision Tuesday is bound to outrage conservative activists and Republican partisans, who are sure to note that all of the members of the Florida court were appointed by Democratic governors. If Gore wins under these circumstances, he likely will face fervent opposition from conservatives who desperately wanted to see the country repudiate President Clinton by rejecting his vice president. That may have been signaled by the extremely sharp denunciation of the court that Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) delivered on CNN immediately after the decision.

In a more immediate sense, this ruling is likely to prompt Republicans to try to increase Bush's vote total by going to court to seek the inclusion of overseas military ballots disqualified on various grounds last week. And Bush advisor James A. Baker III, the former secretary of State, suggested late Tuesday that the Republican-controlled Florida state Legislature may seek to somehow overturn the decision--a prospect that could greatly escalate the conflict.

But the real battle is likely to come over the standards these three counties will use in judging which ballots contain evidence of "voter intent" to support Gore or Bush. Both camps are likely to return to court on that question, which may be the obscure lever on which the choice of the next president will turn.

Both sides have been exploring other options for pressing their claim if the court ruled against them on this central issue--from appeals of the decision itself to new actions meant to include or exclude small numbers of votes that could tip the result again.

But for the time being, the effect of the decision will be to focus attention directly on the manual recounts themselves--and whether they allow Gore to overtake Bush.

It may have been a sign of Gore's confidence that, in a statement after the decision, he renounced a longshot option for overcoming a Bush win in Florida: convincing individual members of the electoral college to shift their votes from Bush to him. Gore said he wouldn't accept any such support, although he would need only three electors to switch even if Bush wins Florida.

Through the first stage of the recount, Gore hasn't received as many new votes as his advisors had expected, particularly in Palm Beach County. Unofficial results through Tuesday night showed Gore gaining 266 votes in the three counties, not nearly as many as he needs.

But he has the potential to gain much more depending on how the counties rule on disputed ballots where the evidence of "voter intent" isn't clear.

If the counties use a relatively restrictive standard, neither side can be confident about the outcome, one senior Gore advisor said last weekend. If the counties are more permissive in counting ballots with more minimal evidence of voter intent--such as an indentation, or dimple, on the chad--Gore's chances are much better, analysts in both parties agree.

Gore attorneys had asked the court to establish a permissive statewide standard for judging those disputed ballots; although it sympathetically cited an Illinois court decision urging a broad standard in judging ballots, the Florida court refused to set one itself.

But one senior Bush advisor said it was not clear which candidate would actually benefit more from that aspect of the decision. By not mandating a statewide standard, the Bush advisor noted, the court allowed Broward and Miami-Dade to continue using the relatively permissive standards they have already applied in judging ballots.

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