Gore Gaining Ground, Losing Time

Palm Beach County canvassing board chair Charles Burton, center, looks at a ballot with Democrat lawyer Nicole Pollard, center left, during the counting of contested ballots at the Emergency Operations Center in West Palm Beach, Fla., Saturday
AP
Around the clock ballot recounts nibbled slowly at George W. Bush's ultra-thin margin over Al Gore, drawing the two candidates even closer in their historically tight race for the White House.

At the same time, Bush lawyers filed new county-level suits to squeeze more votes out of military ballots in time to meet a court-imposed deadline for certifying Florida's presidential election.

In an unofficial Associated Press tally of manual recounts and review of overseas ballots around the state, Bush led by 408 votes early Sunday, a margin of less than 0.01 percent of the 6 million votes cast in the state and less than half his 930-vote lead before the recounts.

Broward County finished its hand recount just before midnight Saturday, cutting deeply into the Republican's lead. Palm Beach plodded through the night, releasing the results of less than 50 precincts.

The two counties employed different standards for assessing ballots.

Republicans and Democrats weighed whether to cheer or complain as the court-declared 5 p.m. EST deadline loomed, with neither side claiming official certification would be the final word on the longest, closest White House race in 124 years.

Florida's top elections official, Republican Secretary of State Katherine Harris, planned to announce a winner shortly after that hour, unless more lawsuits interfered.

Broward County cut 567 votes from the Bush lead statewide. Some of that was offset by review of military ballots in several other counties.

Five counties — Hillsborough, Okaloosa, Orange, Pasco and Polk — faced Republican lawsuits filed late Saturday or planned Sunday morning to force review of their overseas ballots.

In Palm Beach County, the three canvass board members, all Democrats, had examined more than 4,900 of some 9,500 ballots in dispute because voting machines could not clearly read a presidential choice.

The results released by early Sunday, from 369 of 637 precincts overall, disappointed Democrats who had hoped to pick up hundreds of additional votes for Gore.

Observers on both sides said Gore had gained fewer than 100 votes by early Sunday in Palm Beach, and the only official result had Bush up by 10 votes.

In a blow to Bush, the Florida Supreme Court ruled last week that the recounts could continue. Gore requested hand counts in hopes of turning up previously uncounted votes in heavily Democratic counties.

But the court set the Sunday deadline for the counties to turn in amended results, and that turned into bad news for Gore. What could have been his richest source of potential new votes, Miami-Dade County, said it couldn't meet the deadline and dropped their recount.

Republicans said the Sunday deadline offers at least a public relations opportunity for the Texas governor — if he still leads Gore.

But they insisted there would be no gloating.

Whether or not Bush declares outright victory and suggests that Gore concede depends on the vote totals unday, a senior official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

If he still trails at certification by such a tiny margin, Gore plans to protest some county results in state courts Monday, and the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing arguments four days later on Bush's case against recounts — meaning the nation may not know its 43rd president until legal wrangling wraps up sometime in December.

Bush, too, was prepared to protest vote counts in the certification, whether or not Gore overtakes him. Under Florida law, the loser can challenge the election after it is certified, and the winner can file a "counter-contest" raising separate complaints.

"We're preparing contest papers that will be filed Monday, as early in the day Monday as we can get them done," said Gore lawyer David Boies.

The vice president's staff was making tentative plans for a Monday address by Gore, a senior adviser said on condition of anonymity. The speech would give the vice president a chance to explain why he was fighting the certification, they said, and set the stage for the historic clash before the U.S. Supreme Court.

By Anne Gearan
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