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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS | Florida Recounts Race
to Deadline

Bush Holds Slim Lead; Gore Prepares for Further Court Action

Election: Officials continue to scrutinize ballots in two counties as today's 5 p.m. EST finish line looms. Both sides prepare for more legal sparring.


WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Al Gore and George W. Bush continued their hand-to-hand fighting across Florida on Saturday as bleary-eyed election officials in Broward and Palm Beach counties raced against today's deadline to complete their manual recounts of nearly 10,000 disputed ballots.

Bush still clung to a slender lead, but lawyers for the two candidates were already looking past tonight's scheduled election certification to a new round of courtroom battles over who won the presidency.

The Texas governor was ahead of Gore by 497 votes, or 0.008% of the 6 million cast statewide. The figure does not account for the 90 or so votes the vice president gained in Palm Beach County, based on unofficial results. Palm Beach officials planned to work through the night to scrutinize as many ballots as physically possible.

If Bush is still ahead tonight, which both sides expect, he will likely be certified the winner of Florida and its 25 electoral votes, putting him just over the 270 needed to win the White House in the nation's closest presidential election in well over a century.

Attorneys for Gore intend to contest the results, and the vice president was tentatively planning a speech Monday in which he may lay out the rationale for pressing his legal fight.

With an eye toward public opinion, the campaign Saturday also stepped up its use of senior party surrogates to allay any doubts that Democrats are united behind Gore's decision.

"This may take time, but it is time well spent," said former President Carter, in a statement released by the campaign. "We must not sacrifice accuracy for speed in deciding who has been chosen by the voters."

Attorneys for Gore said that if the vice president is still trailing when the results are certified, they will pursue legal challenges in at least three counties: Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Nassau.

"We fully expect to file a contest . . . by the end of Monday at the latest," said Doug Hattaway, a Gore spokesman in Tallahassee.

Attorneys for Gore planned to argue that a variety of irregularities--including alleged intimidation of election officials in Miami-Dade and a confusing "butterfly" ballot in Palm Beach--deprived the vice president of Florida's decisive electoral votes.

Mandatory Recount Misses Ballots

In Nassau County, the campaign alleges local election officials improperly reverted to their election night vote count after a mandatory machine recount missed about 200 presidential ballots. The action resulted in a net gain of 52 votes for Bush. "That one's a slam-dunk," asserted one Gore advisor.

The Bush campaign, meantime, continued to pursue its own legal options. On Saturday, attorneys recalibrated their strategy on the disqualification of overseas absentee ballots, dropping a lawsuit that targeted 14 counties and filing instead a series of county-by-county lawsuits.

Senior advisors to Bush said they had not ruled out filing their own official contest against the election if the recounts put Gore ahead.

Such an action would likely argue that the standards used in the hand recounting of ballots, which differ in each locale, were "unreliable and subjective," aides said. The campaign may also challenge the dismissal of overseas absentee ballots for assorted reasons, including lack of proper postmarks and other problems.

U.S. Supreme Court Set to Hear Arguments

Regardless, the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments Friday on Bush's claim that the Florida Supreme Court violated federal law when it allowed the manual recounts to go forward.

The suit has been joined by the GOP-majority Florida Legislature, which has threatened to call a special session to award the state's 25 electors to Bush if it appears Gore may win Florida.

As their proxies faced off Saturday in court papers and counting rooms across this soggy state, the two candidates stayed mostly out of sight.

Bush spent the better part of the day at his ranch outside Waco, Texas, before returning home to Austin. He was greeted by hundreds of supporters gathered outside the Governor's Mansion, including one man carrying a sign that read, "Gore is a chad molester"--a reference to the hanging bits of paper off cardboard ballots.

Bush waved, gave a thumbs-up and held up three fingers in a "W" sign before entering the governor's mansion. His campaign chairman, Don Evans, spoke briefly to reporters and refused to "answer any hypotheticals" about what Bush might say on Sunday. "We're just going to have to wait till tomorrow night and see what the results are and then we'll make a decision" Evans said.

Gore, meantime, stepped out for ice cream on a cold and blustery Washington day.

Accompanied by his wife, Tipper, their daughter Karenna, and son-in-law, Drew Schiff, Gore posed for snapshots and chatted up fellow customers at Max's, a shop near the vice presidential mansion in northwest Washington.

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