WASHINGTON — Results of a presidential election recount in two Florida counties are due Sunday evening, and it looks like a cliffhanger, except for one sure thing: This won't be the end of it.
Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore don't agree on much, but they agree that whoever loses will contest the outcome of Sunday's certification of the Florida presidential vote.
Senior aides to both candidates said Friday that they are resolved to keep fighting--in courts, in legislatures and in the forum of public opinion--no matter how the results turn out.
"I don't think anyone expected Sunday to be the end of the line," a Gore aide said.
"There is no final court that can resolve this issue," sighed a Bush advisor. "The only way this is ever going to end is if one of these guys pulls the plug."
Both campaigns already have charted their avenues of appeal. If Gore loses, aides say, he will contest the results in at least one county, starting a legal process in state court that could entangle Florida's electors in uncertainty.
Opportunities for More Wrangling
If Bush loses, he has several legal options, including one that appears locked in: his emergency appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the decision to allow late hand recounts, which the court agreed Friday to consider next week.
Good lawyering for both men has produced a wealth of opportunities for further wrangling. Equally important, both campaigns appear resolved to stick to their guns.
Each side firmly believes it won the election in Florida--and thus the White House.
Each side sees victory almost within its grasp. Each candidate's strongest partisans--his "base," in political terms--are urging him to continue to fight. Neither candidate has exhausted the available appeals.
And no workable proposal for a compromise has appeared.
The Gore campaign was first to announce that it wouldn't be bound by Sunday's results, which hinge on how many votes Gore gains from manual recounts in Palm Beach and Broward counties.
Gore legal strategist Ron Klain told reporters Thursday night that the Democrats already have decided to "contest" the election in Miami-Dade County, where election officials aborted a recount, saying they couldn't finish by the Sunday deadline set by the Florida Supreme Court.
On Friday, a Gore aide said the Democrats also intend to contest the results in Palm Beach County, where officials have decided not to count most "dimples"--ballots with chads that are indented but not punched out.
Under Florida law, a losing candidate can file an "election contest suit" after the results are certified. To win the suit, he or she must convince a state judge that the results are wrong.
Gore spokesman Chris Lehane said the Democrats are more determined every day to persist on this legal course--in large part because they believe their candidate won more voters, if not more votes.
"It's always been our belief . . . that there are more people who went to the polls on Nov. 7 to vote for Al Gore than for George W. Bush [in Florida]," Lehane said.
"We've been confident that a fair recount would show that to be the case," he said.
On the GOP side, Bush campaign advisors greeted the unexpected news that the U.S. Supreme Court will hear their case with whoops of delight.
"We are pleased," the campaign's national counsel, Benjamin Ginsberg, said in a terse statement.
Said a Bush political advisor more concretely: "This means we have more cards to play than they do."
Indeed, Bush has at least four possible courses of action if Sunday's recount results from Palm Beach and Broward counties show him behind Gore statewide for the first time.
His appeal to the Supreme Court asks, in effect, for the recounts to be discounted. Bush also can file the same kind of "contest suit" in state court that Gore has said he will pursue. In Bush's case, he might argue that the two counties counted too many dimpled ballots, rather than too few.
Meanwhile, Bush already has asked a state judge to order 14 counties to reconsider the disqualification of hundreds of absentee ballots cast by overseas voters, many of them military personnel.
Finally, in what would be a dramatic escalation, Bush could ask either the Florida Legislature or Congress, both controlled by Republican majorities, to ignore the recount and award Florida's electoral votes to him.
A Bush advisor said Friday that those possibilities have not been ruled out.
On both sides, the rhetoric has escalated to the point that each is accusing the other of trying to steal the election--an assertion that has the effect of urging both candidates to stay in the fight.
Republicans were first to use that language, with even moderates such as Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) condemning Gore's tactics as "just theft."
A Big Margin Could End It