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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Gore Presses Swift Count of Disputed Votes

Election: Democrats argue that contested ballots must be quickly reexamined, and the vice president makes his case on TV. Bush lawyers urge a more deliberate process.

November 30, 2000|RICHARD A. SERRANO and MICHAEL FINNEGAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush both battled the clock Wednesday, with Gore's legal team pleading on several fronts for a quicker resolution of its challenge to Florida's election results and Bush's lawyers urging a slower, more deliberate process.

The dispute, played out in court here, reflected a broader strategic battle as the Gore team, worried about running out of time before a Dec. 12 deadline to certify Florida's 25 electors, moved to accelerate the pace of his various legal challenges. The Bush camp, in turn, sought delays at every turn.

Meanwhile, Gore spent much of the day before television cameras and declared that he still has an even chance of winning, despite the fact that Florida has certified Bush as the winner of the state and thus the White House.

The Bush camp opened a transition office in McLean, Va., near the home of running mate Dick Cheney, and planned for presidential appointments. Bush remained at his ranch near Waco, Texas.

The main front in the legal dispute Wednesday centered on the number of ballots to be shipped by convoy from South Florida to the Tallahassee courtroom where the outcome of the election to name the nation's 43rd president could be decided.

The size of that convoy is crucial to the Democrats--the more ballots are trucked to Tallahassee, the longer it will take. And that works against Gore.

Gore's lawyers wanted only 3,300 disputed ballots from Palm Beach and 10,000 from Miami-Dade counties to be brought here today. They also wanted an immediate review of those ballots by the court.

"We believe the counting has got to start right away," Gore attorney David Boies told the Leon County Circuit court here. "Let us start now."

But Judge N. Sanders Sauls held firm to his timetable, under which he won't decide whether to recount any ballots until after a trial gets underway Saturday in Gore's challenge of the election results in three Florida counties.

And Bush lawyers persuaded the judge that all 1.1 million ballots from the two counties should be trucked up, a process that will take until Friday. About 462,000 ballots from Palm Beach County are to hit the road today.

Bush lawyers even persuaded the judge that some of the lawyers should tag along in the convoy to make sure the ballots safely and securely arrive in Tallahassee.

"We have real concerns about the integrity of the evidence here," said Phil Beck, a lawyer on the Bush team.

While his lawyers argued his case in court, Gore appeared in television interviews to press his case with the public.

Asked on NBC's "Today" show to gauge the likelihood that he will prevail, the vice president said, "I think they are still 50-50."

He also again called for a statewide hand recount--even though that is practically impossible at this late date and despite the Bush team's repeated rejection of the proposal. Nevertheless, Gore thinks it could boost him past Bush's edge of just 537 votes in Florida.

"I think they believe if there was a hand count of the entire state," Gore said, "our margin of victory would be even larger."

Bush, at his ranch near Waco, worked on White House staffing and operations, according to Ari Fleischer, the governor's transition spokesman. Fleischer said Bush has been trying to telephone members of the Republican congressional leadership.

"The governor is going to extend bipartisanship and he feels that bipartisanship will be reciprocated," Fleischer said.

*

Also Wednesday:

* The Gore campaign asked the state Supreme Court to either launch its own recount of 3,300 problematic ballots in South Florida itself, or to order Leon County Circuit Court Judge Sauls to begin the recount immediately.

The state's high court, full of appointees by Democratic governors, has been favorable to Gore in the past, particularly in granting him extra time to seek more recounts of votes in South Florida.

* The Bush team, evidently trying to overwhelm a court system confronted with a legal contest that normally would take months, convinced Sauls to order all of the ballots from Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties shipped here this week.

More than 1 million ballots will be loaded aboard heavy trucks and driven to the state capital in a high-security police convoy. It promises to be a spectacle never before seen, one that prompted elaborate television news plans for sending helicopters to record the drama.

* A panel of state lawmakers strongly signaled that they will recommend today that the GOP-led Legislature take the recount squabble into its own hands and select a separate slate of pro-Bush electors.

The Legislature is now headed toward a special session next week, and Gov. Jeb Bush, the Republican presidential candidate's brother, said he would sign legislation naming a separate slate of electors. He called the GOP lawmakers' plan "an act of courage."

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