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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS | NEWS ANALYSIS

Gore Must Find His Momentum in Palm Beach

November 24, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN and JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — After another dizzying day of shifting fortunes, Al Gore is back in a familiar position this morning--needing to squeeze more votes out of Palm Beach County if he is to have any realistic hope of overcoming George W. Bush's narrow lead in Florida.

Gore suffered a major disappointment Thursday that was almost immediately salved by encouraging news on another front.

The Florida Supreme Court rejected the vice president's request that it order Miami-Dade County to resume the hand count it terminated Wednesday. But only hours later, Democrats were cheered when the Broward County canvassing board found more new Gore votes than expected as it began reviewing 1,800 disputed ballots.

These contradictory currents may carry Gore to a precipice by Sunday. When Broward finishes counting, the Democratic presidential candidate is likely to be within range of Republican rival Bush--but still behind. That will increase the focus on Palm Beach County, where the canvassing board has been applying a relatively stringent standard to judge whether ballots contain evidence of voter intent to support Bush or Gore. As a result, the heavily Democratic county, where Gore once expected to gain hundreds of votes through the recount, actually has produced a small net advantage for Bush.

Even if Gore can't pass Bush by 5 p.m. EST Sunday, when counties must submit their amended results to Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, key aides acknowledge that it is critical for him to significantly narrow the gap if he has hopes of fighting on.

On Thursday, senior Gore legal strategist Ron Klain and other advisors said the vice president would not quit even if he still trails Sunday. But Democrats on Capitol Hill say pressure is likely to increase significantly on Gore to concede if he still trails after the manual recounts are completed.

Small Lead Could Bring Longer Fight

Gore aides acknowledge that, but they believe it will be much easier to justify continuing the fight on other fronts--through a formal contest to the election under Florida law, for instance--if he trails by a relatively small number of votes rather than several hundred.

"The whole issue is on a curve," acknowledged one senior Gore advisor.

If Miami-Dade County had been compelled to keep counting, it might have helped Gore, but probably not as much as is commonly believed. The county is the state's most populous, but its recount was not expected to produce a major increase in Gore votes because he enjoyed only a 53%-47% advantage there over Bush on election day, according to polls.

Though the early stages of the hand count in Miami-Dade County showed Gore gaining a significant number of votes--votes that have now been discarded--both sides believe those numbers came from predominantly Democratic precincts. Overall, Republicans had expected Miami-Dade to finish at virtually a wash between the two men; Democrats were hoping to gain between 100 and 200 votes--a potentially important, but not an immense, number.

"The court decision is definitely a blow, but it is not determinative," one senior Democrat said. "Dade was never going to yield huge numbers."

Easing the pain of the state Supreme Court decision (which Gore advisors said Thursday that they were unlikely to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court) were the results in Broward County's first day of counting disputed ballots.

Through the first 327 ballots, Gore netted 88 votes--in addition to the 137 he picked up during the initial stage of the county's recount.

With about 1,800 disputed ballots due to be reassessed, Gore is on pace to net 400 to 500 votes from this stage of the process, local observers say.

In fact, some believe the gains could be even greater after all of Broward County's dimpled ballots are counted. Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. (R-Fla.) fears Gore will win a higher percentage of votes as the count continues, which could boost his take to 600 or more votes from Broward.

So far Gore has won about one of every four questionable ballots. Many of those ballots came from suburban precincts not heavily Democratic. The Broward County canvassing board is moving through the ballots precinct by precinct, north to south.

Still to be counted are ballots from the heavily Jewish retirement communities in south Broward and the black neighborhoods in urban Fort Lauderdale, two of the strongest Democratic areas in a county already overwhelmingly Democratic.

"I'm afraid Gore's going to pick up even more votes as this count continues," said Shaw, part of the Republican team that spent Thanksgiving bottled up in an antiseptic, overly air-conditioned Fort Lauderdale courtroom watching the recount.

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