TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A Florida state judge announced Tuesday he will order thousands of ballots driven from South Florida to the state capital here under the tight security of state police--setting up the possible final act in Vice President Al Gore's struggle to capture Florida's electoral votes and wrest the presidency from Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
"You want some ballots up here, well bring 'em," said Leon County Circuit Judge N. Sanders Sauls. "Let's just bring 'em."
Getting the ballots to Tallahassee was a victory for Gore in his legal challenge of Florida's certification of votes handing victory to Bush. But his lawyers did not fare as well when the judge put the trial off until Saturday morning and made no promises of ever counting those ballots.
"I have no idea what we're going to do concerning ballots, counting or not counting ballots." But, he added, "we need to have some ballots on hand."
Even as Gore was contesting the vote in Florida, lawyers for both candidates were filing legal briefs with the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, where Bush wants the nation's highest court to order all of the recounting and legal wrangling to come to a close now that election day is three weeks past.
In their legal papers, the Bush lawyers asked the Supreme Court justices to bring "legal finality" to the election by overturning the Florida courts and shutting down any further ballot recounts.
"By acting now," the Bush lawyers said, ". . . this court will eliminate the potential for a constitutional crisis" over who picks the electors and how.
But the Gore legal team said the Republican arguments were "insubstantial" and that the Florida Supreme Court, which backed additional recounts of votes, "played a familiar and quintessentially judicial role" in interpreting state law.
And, they stressed, this is primarily a state matter.
"Principles of federalism counsel strongly against interference by this court," the Gore lawyers said.
In other developments Tuesday, another Tallahassee Circuit Court judge set a trial date for next Wednesday in a lawsuit seeking to throw out all of Seminole County's 15,000 absentee ballots. If successful, that would eliminate about 10,000 votes already counted for Bush, dwarfing the governor's slim official margin of victory in Florida.
In the state Supreme Court, lawyers filed briefs in a longshot lawsuit demanding a new vote in Palm Beach County, whose controversial "butterfly ballot" allegedly confused Gore supporters and cost him thousands of votes.
And a special state legislative committee met for the first time as it became increasingly obvious that the Republican-dominated Florida Legislature will call a special session and appoint its own slate of electors--regardless of whether Gore or Bush is ahead on Dec. 12, the cutoff date for Florida to confirm its electors.
Every day now is precious for the Democratic vice president as time speeds toward that date. On Tuesday, he addressed the nation for the second day in a row, urging Bush not to unfairly slow him down.
He also asked the public to be patient with his latest appeal of the vote counts, particularly now that several nationwide polls show a growing number of people believe his protests have gone on long enough and that he should concede.
"This is not a time for delay, obstruction and procedural roadblocks," the vice president said in a brief appearance in front of the vice presidential residence in Washington.
Gore Wants Review of 13,300 Ballots
The nation, he added, needs "to be able to say there is no legitimate question of who won this election."
He trails the Republican governor by just 537 votes in the state. Last Sunday, Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris declared Bush the winner of the 25 electoral votes here--just enough to hand the Texas governor the White House.
To push ahead of Bush, Gore now wants Sauls to review more than 13,300 ballots from Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties that the vice president believes will boost his total beyond Bush.
But it remained unclear how or even whether Judge Sauls, or an assistant, will review the ballots. The judge, acknowledging the unique and unchartered legal ground surrounding this historic case, admitted that he was unsure how the matter will yet unfold.
He pointed out the complexities of the case--the kind that normally would take several months to try.
"We can't have people just jumping on a horse and riding off in all directions," he said. "And we can't have people counting ballots until they're slap-happy. . . . We'll go just as long as we can on Saturday as long as everybody is still standing."
Gore lead attorney David Boies pressed repeatedly Tuesday for an earlier trial date and an immediate decision by the court to review the ballots.
He proposed a schedule for a ruling by Sauls by Dec. 6 and then an appeal to the state Supreme Court by the losing side on Dec. 7. That would leave time, they hope, for a state Supreme Court ruling as early as Dec. 9.