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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS | Florida Recounts Race
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Bush Holds Slim Lead; Gore Prepares for Further Court Action

Strategy: Final results are to be certified today. Vice president will ask for special officials to oversee new manual reviews in two key counties if he still trails, top advisor says.


WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — In a last-ditch effort to overcome George W. Bush's lead, Vice President Al Gore is preparing to ask the Florida courts to reopen the manual recounts in two key counties, a senior Gore legal advisor says.

If Gore still trails when the final results are certified at 5 p.m. EST today, the vice president on Monday will ask the state courts to appoint special officials to both resume the manual recount in Miami-Dade County and to review thousands of disputed ballots in Palm Beach County, should the canvassing board there continue to disqualify most suspect ballots, the advisor says.

Though the hand recount in Broward County has produced an unexpectedly large gain for the vice president, Gore's camp is bracing for Bush to remain ahead when all Florida counties report final results to Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris this afternoon, as mandated in last week's state Supreme Court decision; that would allow Harris to certify Bush as the official winner.

But Gore advisors say that, under the provisions of state law that allow the loser to formally contest an election, they are prepared to argue in court Monday morning that a variety of irregularities resulted in Bush improperly being awarded the state--whose 25 electoral college votes would give him the presidency.

David Cardwell, the former Florida elections commissioner, says that, while Gore would face an uphill challenge in persuading a court to overturn a certified election, his position is not hopeless because there is precedent for courts taking control of recounts in the state.

"They are still going to have a very hard time to get a judge to overturn the results that are certified," Cardwell says. "But it's possible."

Meanwhile, senior Bush advisors say they have not ruled out formally contesting the election if the recounts put Gore ahead. If Bush files such an action, aides say, he will likely argue that the standards used in the manual recounts were "unreliable and subjective," says a senior Bush legal advisor.

"I think the Broward results and the Palm results aren't worth anything in terms of reliability as we lay out the case of the inconsistencies that have gone on there," says the advisor. "This is all so thoroughly unreliable and subjective."

Either way, it now appears virtually certain that the legal and political battles in Florida will continue through the week as both sides brace for the U.S. Supreme Court's Friday hearing on Bush's challenge to the recounts.

Under Florida law, a losing candidate can file a formal contest to the result if he can present evidence that "would show that a person other than the successful candidate was the person . . . elected to the office in question." Election contests are heard in the state courts, with the Democratic-dominated state Supreme Court holding the final word; Harris, a Republican who was active in Bush's election campaign, has no role in the process.

At the moment, Gore officials are the ones who most expect to be trailing this evening, when Harris could certify the results. Though Gore has gained more than either camp expected through the manual recount in Broward County, both sides still generally expect that Palm Beach County's recount will not produce enough votes for him to overcome Bush's lead--though Republican anxieties increased during the day Saturday, in step with Gore's rising totals in Broward.

Earlier in the week, it appeared that Gore could face significant pressure to concede if he still trailed at the deadline tonight. But the escalating Republican attacks on the recount process--which have ranged from angry demonstrations in Miami to a U.S. Supreme Court filing in Washington--appear to have had the inadvertent effect of closing ranks among Democrats.

If Gore files a contest to the election, it appears likely to have at least four components, according to the senior Gore legal advisor.

First, Gore will ask the courts to appoint a special master to complete the manual recount that the Miami-Dade canvassing board abruptly terminated last week. Under that request, the court appointee would seize control of the recount process from the canvassing board, the advisor says. To shorten the time needed for the task--and perhaps to increase his chance of gaining votes--Gore may ask the court only to recount the roughly 10,000 ballots in the county on which the automatic tabulating machines failed to record a presidential preference. Gore aides believe Democrats may be disproportionately represented among these "undervotes."

Second, the advisor and other sources say, the campaign will ask the courts to award Gore the 157 net new votes that he had garnered in Miami-Dade County before the county abandoned the recount.

The county's canvassing board halted the recount Wednesday, saying there was not enough time to finish by today's deadline set by the state high court.

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