Bush Officially Ahead, But...

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Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris announced Tuesday night that Texas Gov. George Bush holds a 300-vote lead over Al Gore based on returns submitted by all 67 counties. She said she would consider updated submissions from three counties where the vice president has requested manual recounts.

One week after the election, Harris, a Republican, said Bush has 2,910,492 votes and Gore has 2,910,192 out of 6 million cast in the state. An unknown additional number of overseas absentee ballots remain to be counted by Friday night, she added.

Hours after a Florida judge issued a complicated ruling on the controversy, Harris said her office was requiring officials in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties to explain the "facts and circumstances" that support their desire to proceed with manual recounts. She set a 2 p.m. Wednesday deadline for the counties to reply.

Miami-Dade later opted not to conduct a manual count, Palm Beach was to conduct a countywide hand recount on Wednesday and Broward was to decide Wednesday whether to do so based on an expected ruling from the state Supreme Court.

In remarks to the press as she announced the tally, Harris said, "Unless I determine, in the exercise of my discretion, that these facts and circumstances contained within these written statements justify an amendment to today's official returns, the state Elections Canvassing Commission, in a manner consistent with its usual and normal practice, will certify statewide results reported to this office today."

Harris declined to field questions from reporters, acting, she said, on the advice of attorneys. In a sign of the tensions that underlie the unsettled presidential election, uniformed state officers were visible at the foot of the dais where she announced the results of the canvass of all 67 counties.

The Gore campaign responded swiftly to the announcement.

"Several counties are proceeding to count their votes and the secretary of state should meet her responsibility to accept those votes before she certifies the election," said Gore campaign chairman Doug Hattaway.

Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes responded sharply to the prospect of additional vote counting. "If they go forward, these Democratic counties are no long recounting, they are reinventing," she said.

Earlier in the day, a state judge refused to extend the 5 p.m. deadline by which Harris had said all counties must submit their results. Yet in the same ruling, Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry P. Lewis also left room for possible post-deadline changes to recount tallies, if they can be justified to Harris. The Bush campaign wanted the deadline to be strictly enforced. Gore's team had hoped to get more time for manual recounts in selected Florida counties, but later said that the ruling would allow those counties to continue with their recounts.

Judge Lewis' ruling sends the election wrangle toward a weekend conclusion. Harri is expected to certify the Sunshine State's final election results - including its presidential winner - on the afternoon of Saturday, Nov. 18. All of Florida's absentee ballots are due at state election offices by midnight on Friday, Nov. 17. One official estimated there will be between 4,000 and 6,000 of these absentee ballots, more than in 1994. Florida's 25 electoral votes are key in deciding whether Democrat Gore or Republican Bush becomes the next president.

Lewis had questioned why the state set the Tuesday deadline when absentee votes coming from overseas can continue to be counted through the end of the week. In his final decision, however, Lewis did not overrule the Florida statute.

CBS Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen says that while Lewis' ruling was a defeat for the Democrats, it was not a total loss. In addition, the ruling may well be revised as appeals go forward.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, in Florida to represent Gore, couched the ruling in positive terms for the vice president.

"The hand counts ... must be considered by the secretary of state" even if they're filed after the 5 p.m. Tuesday deadline, Christopher said, in interpreting the court ruling.

Christopher was joined by attorney David Boies, a trial attorney who is most famous for his prosecution of Microsoft in the federal antitrust case.

"When the final count is actually made, the secretary of state cannot arbitrarily refuse to accept it," Boies said, explaining that Harris would not be able to summarily reject changes in recount totals made by counties after Tuesday afternoon without cause.

Christopher has suggested attempts to stop the recount were politically motivated and that Harris faces a conflict of interest, because of her support for the Bush campaign.

On Tuesday morning, Bush's point man on the Florida recount, former Secretary of State James Baker, asked the Gore campaign to adhere to the deadline. Baker said the Bush camp would drop its litigation opposing hand recounts if Gore would accept the deadline and the result of the Florida vote once all absentee ballots are counted.

"Most observers ... are troubled by the prospect of seemingly endless counts and recounts," Baker said.

The Democrats immediately rejected Baker's bid to bring the dispute to a close.

"It truly was not a proposal ... it was in my opinion an inaccurate description of the laws of Florida," said William Daley, Gore's campaign chairman.

With the Sunshine State still in dispute, Bush has won 29 states for a total of 246 electoral votes. Gore - who added Oregon to his victory column, but lost New Mexico to "too close too call" status on Friday - has won 19 states, plus the District of Columbia, for a total of 262. To win the White House, 270 electoral votes are needed.

In some other developments on Tuesday:

  • The Bush camp filed a notice of appeal in Atlanta to reserve ts right to challenge a federal judge who refused Monday to block the manual counts.
  • Gore regained the lead in New Mexico's seesawing race for five electoral votes after officials announced that they had misread absentee results.
  • The Democratic Party filed a motion in Circuit Court arguing that Broward County should be ordered to conduct a full hand count of its 588,000 ballots. Election authorities in the county decided to add four more votes to Gore - votes that turned up during a hand count of three precincts on Monday.
  • Also, numerous voters have sued separately over alleged voting irregularities in Palm Beach. Celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz represents some of them, and Gore's team is helping collect affidavits from voters with complaints.