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'We're all in limbo'

Manual recount begins, but a judge will rule Monday on Bush's effort to block it

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By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 12, 2000


In elections offices and courtrooms, George W. Bush and Al Gore are poised to simultaneously battle on several fronts this week as they continue their historic fight for Florida and the presidency.

Bush asked a federal judge Saturday to stop a hand recount of votes sought by Gore in four Florida counties that the vice president won. A hearing is scheduled for Monday in Miami on the Texas governor's argument that a hand recount would be unfair and more error-prone than the previous two mechanical tallies.

Meanwhile, hand recounts began Saturday in Palm Beach County and are expected to start today in Volusia County. A hand recount is scheduled to begin Monday in Broward County, and elections officials in Miami-Dade County will meet Tuesday to decide whether to perform a hand recount there.

The scene Saturday in Palm Beach County illustrated how tedious it is to examine even a few thousand ballots. As hundreds of political observers and journalists looked on, new rules were adopted for handling "chads," the tiny squares that often still hang from where ballots were punched.

Counted as votes: "hanging door" and "swinging door" chads as well as "tri-chads."

Discounted: "Dimple" and "pregnant" chads.

But as the Bush campaign moves to block such hand recounts, it is quietly exploring other counties to contest if it loses in court. Bush lawyers and operatives examined absentee ballots Saturday in Pinellas County, where Gore gained votes in a mechanical recount. Others kept an eye on Duval County, where Bush won and almost 22,000 votes were tossed out because voters chose more than one candidate.

Five days after voters cast their ballots in the 2000 presidential election, the historic race remains too close to call. Neither the Texas governor nor the vice president show any sign of giving up.

"We're all in limbo," Bush said at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

As it stands this morning, Gore still leads in the national popular vote and has 262 Electoral College votes. Bush has 246 electoral votes, and it takes 270 to win. The winner of Florida's 25 electoral votes would win the presidency.

New Mexico also remains too close to call, but its five electoral votes are not enough to affect the outcome of the election.

Bush won the first mechanical vote of Florida's nearly 6-million votes by 1,784 votes, a margin so thin it triggered an automatic recount. His advantage over Gore is down to 327 votes in an unofficial tally of the recount, which has yet to be officially completed.

With results from hand recounts and overseas ballots that won't all be counted until Friday, Gore officials believe the vice president still will win Florida and the presidency.

But Warren Christopher, the former secretary of state who is monitoring the Florida election for Gore, offered vague responses to questions about whether Gore would pursue lawsuits if he is still behind by then.

"There are other options we have before us," he said.

The Bush campaign counters that the Texas governor has won both the first count and the recount in Florida. While Bush is willing to wait for thousands of overseas ballots to be counted to formally declare victory, the campaign wants to block the hand recounts that could further narrow his lead or put Gore on top.

"The manual vote count sought by the Gore campaign would not be more accurate than an automated recount," James Baker, the former secretary of state heading Bush's review of the Florida vote, said Saturday in Tallahassee. "Indeed, it would be less fair and less accurate."

The Gore camp disagreed.

After briefing Gore and running mate Joseph Lieberman on Saturday afternoon at the vice president's residence in Washington, campaign manager William Daley and Christopher defended the hand recounts. They said the effort is the only way to accurately determine the will of Florida voters, and they called on Bush to drop his legal challenge.

"The hand count here can be completed expeditiously and it should be," Christopher said. "The importance of getting it right outweighs the importance of rushing to judgment."

Bush's request for a court order to stop the hand recounts will be heard Monday in U.S. District Court in Miami by Judge Donald Middlebrooks, who was appointed by President Clinton and once served as general counsel for Gov. Reubin Askew in the 1970s. Middlebrooks, 53, dismissed a large Miami-Dade County corruption case two years ago after deciding federal prosecutors presented a flawed case.

By choosing to fight in federal court rather than state court, Bush avoided locally elected judges in Democratic counties who could feel political pressure. State courts also are often seen as more activist and more willing to try to determine what voters intended when they cast their ballots.

Federal courts typically deal more with procedural issues and are more reluctant to start questioning the judgment calls of local elections officials. But they do interpret state elections law, and a federal ruling that stops the hand recounts in all four counties would be more efficient than seeking state court orders in each county.

By going to court, Bush also took a political risk.

While even some Democrats have been pressuring Gore to avoid being an obstructionist and preventing a quick decision on the election, Bush now may be viewed as trying to thwart efforts to get an accurate vote count in Florida.

"Until today the Bush campaign has argued that every minute counts," Christopher said. "We have consistently maintained, as we do again today, that every vote must count."

Countered Bush communications director Karen Hughes: "Americans watching television today surely must be concerned as they watch vote counters trying to read the minds and divine the intentions of voters. . . ."

New opinion polls indicate most Americans are prepared to be patient -- up to a point.

A Time/CNN poll released Saturday indicated just over half of Americans believe the Gore campaign is acting responsibly while the Florida drama plays out. But a fourth of them said Gore should concede if he loses the official vote when the deadline for overseas ballots arrives on Friday.

A Newsweek poll found that three of four Americans believe it is more important to get an accurate vote count in Florida than to quickly resolve the issue. But over half opposed waiting beyond Friday.

Saturday provided a glimpse of how monotonous it is to painstakingly go through thousands of presidential votes by hand.

In Volusia County, where all 184,018 presidential votes are to be recounted by hand, workers have been busy since Thursday just reviewing the ballots for write-in candidates. The recount is expected to take several days even though more than 250 county workers are involved.

"So far no order has been entered by the federal court," said Volusia County Judge Michael McDermott, chairman of the canvassing board. "So we are at liberty to proceed."

In Palm Beach County, the canvassing board set out to review just 4,000 ballots from four precincts. But even that forced the board members to work late into Saturday night.

First, board members reviewed more than 600 ballots by holding each one up to the light to determine if the voter meant to cast a vote for president. They concluded that standard was inconsistent with their own rules, so they started over early Saturday evening with the new rules for "chads."

"Hanging door" chads, or tiny squares that were still hanging from the top where voters punched a hole, were counted as votes. So were "swinging chads," or those still attached at the side, and "tri-chad" that were still hanging on three of four sides.

But "dimpled" or "pregnant" chads, those that had been pushed but were not detached in any manner, were discounted as votes.

As their surrogates fought for Florida vote by vote, Gore and Bush remained miles away.

In Washington, Gore and Lieberman took their wives to the movies late Saturday. They saw Men of Honor, a movie starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Robert De Niro.

In Texas, Bush met with reporters briefly at his ranch. He did not rule out asking for recounts in other closely contested states such as Iowa and Wisconsin, where he lost, and in New Mexico, which is too close to call.

That all depends on what happens this week in Florida.

"All options are open, of course," said Bush, wearing jeans and a cowboy hat. "But what'll be good for the country is to have this election over with so that the new administration can do the people's business."

In Washington, Clinton asked for patience.

"We have a Constitution. We have a rule of law," he said. "We voted and now the system is trying to figure out exactly what we said. Eventually, they will. The system will do that, according to the Constitution and laws, and America will be just fine."

- Staff writers David Adams, Alicia Caldwell and Shelby Oppel contributed to this report, along with Times wire services.

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