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Democrats Circle Their Wagons in Battle for Florida

Strategy: As the Gore camp readies a challenge to vote certification, doubts lurk behind show of unity. Party leaders wonder how the clash plays with public.


WASHINGTON — Democratic Party leaders fell in line Friday--in some cases reluctantly--behind the decision by Al Gore's presidential campaign that could lead to a challenge of certified election results in Florida.

Gore; his running mate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut; and campaign chairman Bill Daley spent the day calling influential Democrats in a largely successful effort to persuade them to stick with the aggressive legal strategy the Gore team is waging in the battle for Florida's 25 electoral votes.

That strategy includes contesting Sunday's planned certification of the state's vote if Gore remains behind his Republican rival, Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

"I think Democrats should rally behind the vice president," Ohio party chairman David Leland said. "The vice president should go ahead and contest the vote," if necessary, after a 5 p.m. EST Sunday deadline for votes to be counted. Many people thought that the cutoff, set by the Florida Supreme Court, would end the drawn-out election, Leland said.

'Hard Partisan Behavior' Is Seen

Some Democrats said their support for the Gore strategy was motivated in part by the need to present a solid front in the face of new shows of Republican aggressiveness. These included a GOP protest that some Democrats argue helped persuade election officials in Miami-Dade County to give up a hand recount of ballots that Gore had hoped would help him take the lead in Florida.

GOP congressional leaders also have sharpened their rhetoric this week, with some discussing ways to block Gore from claiming the White House even if he were to win Florida.

"Given the hard partisan behavior we've seen from the Republicans in the last 48 hours, most Democrats think what Gore is doing is well within legal and political bounds," said Laura Nichols, spokeswoman for House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri.

But behind the Democrats' show of unity lurked doubts and fissures as party leaders pondered how the extended clash over the election results is playing with the public.

"I'd hoped this thing would be done by Sunday," said Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.), citing the very deadline Gore campaign officials are studying whether they can disregard.

"The American people want this thing over," Breaux added. "They think it's just a bunch of lawyers fighting till the last one can't talk."

Some Democrats seemed to set limits on the Gore campaign even as they asserted their support for the strategy. Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Sacramento) said Gore has "no choice but to push" a challenge of the Florida election results but added he should do so only if the gap between the two candidates--now officially 930 votes in Bush's favor--closes appreciably.

Gore's 'Got to Tough It Out'

"If this narrows to the point that it's doable [for Gore to win], then he has to challenge it," Matsui said. Asked what he considered the necessary margin, he said 300 to 400 votes.

Doubts or not, Democrats picked up the Gore campaign's themes for continuing its legal challenges in Florida, noting that the vice president continues to lead in the popular vote nationwide and asserting that he is standing up for the principle that every effort should be made with questionable ballots to discern a voter's intent.

"He's got to tough it out," said Judith Hope, who heads the New York state Democratic Party. "Some irresponsible people are clamoring that this has gone on too long. That's nonsense."

Time Getting Short to Name Electors

"He's doing just what I would do if I were in his position," said Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.), who suggested earlier this week that victory was slipping from Gore's grasp.

"There's too much at stake to worry about adverse public reaction," Moran said. "He has to keep fighting."

Several Democrats said that, even if Gore continues his legal challenges beyond Sunday, when Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris is to certify the vote results, other deadlines loom that may prove more inviolable. For instance, Florida law requires the state to pick its electors, the people who represent the state in the electoral college, by Dec. 12, something it can do only once a candidate has won.

Even before that, Congress is scheduled to return to Washington for a lame-duck session starting Dec. 5. When it does, some political veterans said, sentiment within the party could harden quickly either for or against the Gore camp continuing the fight.

"When we get together," Matsui said, "that's when the buzz will start and something will gel.


Times staff writer Elizabeth Shogren contributed to this story.


Recount Calendar

More than two weeks after the election, the battle for the presidency marches on.


Sunday: Deadline for Florida counties to turn in their election results to the state. Secretary of State Katherine Harris says she will certify the results.


Monday: Hearing in Seminole County to determine whether about 4,700 absentee ballots should be declared invalid.


Friday: U.S. Supreme Court to hear arguments on whether to overturn Florida Supreme Court's decision that allowed manually recounted votes to be added to vote total.


Dec. 12: Deadline for Florida to finalize its election results and certify its electors.


Dec. 18: Members of electoral college--the electors--cast their votes for president and vice president.



Jan. 6: Results of electoral college vote read to joint session of Congress.


Jan. 20: New president and vice president are inaugurated.


Florida Tally

Results of ongoing uncertified hand recounts:

Palm Beach: Bush +8

Broward: Gore +353

Revisions (7 counties): Bush +90

If these votes are approved, Bush's official lead of 930 narrows to 675.


This Week

The hand recounts in Florida have helped Gore chip away at Bush's 930-vote lead.

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