Democrats had argued that the recounts are allowed under Florida law, while Republicans said they were illegal and should be stopped.
CBS News Legal Consultant Andrew Cohen says the high court's ruling essentially says, "There is no reason why those recounts can't go forward."
Within minutes, officials in Palm Beach County, the epicenter of the election controversy, announced they would swiftly begin a manual recount as requested by Gore's campaign. Palm Beach had held off on its recount, pending the court's decision.
Still unresolved is whether the hand recounts will mean anything, since Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a Republican and Bush supporter, has said she will not accept any ballots counted after a deadline last Tuesday. Judge Charles Burton, a member of the Palm Beach County canvassing board, told a news conference the high court did not appear to have ruled on that question.
"I would imagine that's going to be the next round of litigation," he said.
More answers could come Friday morning, when Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis rules on a Democratic request to overturn Harris' decision not to accept the late ballots. Earlier this week, Lewis said that she could not simply reject all late vote counts beyond her Tuesday deadline without considering the circumstances under which they were delayed.
Cohen said it is "not inconceivable" that Judge Lewis would order Harris not to certify the final election results without further consideration of the hand recounts.
Bush spokeswoman Mindy Tucker termed Thursday's high court ruling "an interim status quo decision. And to our knowledge it appears that it does not address the legality of Secretary Harris' decision."
Gore campaign chairman William Daley said, "We hope the secretary of state will not try to impose other obstacles in the path of this count, and we hope that the counties will complete these counts as fast as is humanly possible."
Democrats believe a hand recount could turn up votes a machine count missed and overturn Bush's scant lead of 300 votes out of 6 million cast in the state. That shift would deliver Florida's 25 Electoral College votes - and the presidency - to Gore. About 2,600 overseas absentee ballots remain to be counted, but so far, at least, there is no dispute about them.
As Florida's recount dispute rages on, the Bush campaign announced Thursday that it will not ask for a recount in Iowa - a state that Gore narrowly won.
Bush campaign chairman Don Evans announced the decision a few hours before the 5 p.m. ET deadline for seeking a recount in the Hawkeye State.
Drawing a contrast to vice president's efforts to continue a hand recount in contested Florida, Evans said that in Iowa, Bush had decied to "do his part to ensure the fairness, accuracy, and finality of this election."
Before Democrats sought a legal remedy in Tallahassee, Gore vowed Thursday to "fight all the way" to ensure that every vote in Florida got counted.
"The choice really is whether the voters are going to decide this election by having every vote count or whether that process is going to be short-circuited without all the votes being examined," the vice president said in an interview on Tom Joyner's radio show in Washington, D.C. on Thursday.
Gore's comments came as three Florida counties - all considered largely Democratic areas - grappled with the latest chapter of the hand recount saga.
In one striking development, when officials in Broward County arrived to resume their hand counting of 588,000 votes, they found a manila police envelope emblazoned with the words: "Crime. Found Property." Inside were 78 "chads," the bits of paper produced when holes are made in punchcard ballots, found on the counting room floor when the recanvassing stopped Wednesday night.
"We go with the saying, 'Let the chads fall as they may,'" said County Elections Supervisor Jane Carroll, a Republican member of the canvassing board. "Chads are not partisan."
Friday, November 17
Overseas absentee ballots are due at Midnight Eastern. These ballots had to be postmarked no later than Election Day, November 7. State officials estimate 4,000-6,000 of the ballots.
Saturday, November 18
Tuesday, December 12
Monday, December 18
And in yet a third county, Miami-Dade, officials there disclosed plans to meet Friday to reconsider their earlier refusal of Gore's request for a hand recount of all 654,000 ballots there.
Thursday's events unfolded after both White House wannabes took their struggle over Florida's vote count to the national airwaves the night before.
Gore promised to file no more lawsuits if he and Bush both could agree to be bound either by the hand recounts in the disputed counties, plus the remaining overseas absentee ballots still trickling in - or by a hand recount of the entire Sunshine State.
Rejecting both proposals, Bush said thvote totals certified by Florida's Secretary of State should be added to the overseas absentee ballots and tallied up, so she can certify the presidential winner in the state as planned on the afternoon of Saturday, November 18.
"This process must have a point of conclusion," Bush said. "This is precisely why the laws of Florida have deadlines."
The governor deplored the hand-counting process for introducing "human error and politics into the vote-counting process."
As for Gore's offer to meet with Bush "personally, one on one," the governor said he'd be "glad" to meet with Gore "once this election is over."
CBS News Chief White House Correspondent John Roberts reports that sources with the vice president's campaign say Bush's rejection of Gore's offer to drop all legal action in exchange for an agreement on hand recounts means that all legal options are now back on the table.
One possibility is that the Gore camp could sue for a new election in Palm Beach County, and perhaps Broward County. It's an option that the Gore camp would rather not use. But as one source put it, "If the Bush campaign continues to use Florida's Secretary of State" to block the ongoing hand count, then it's an option that Gore's legal team would consider.
On a separate legal front, Bush looked to a federal appeals court in Atlanta to shut down the canvassing altogether, calling manual recounts inaccurate and prone to political mischief.
"Eight days after Florida's presidential vote, the entire nation is witnessing the disintegration of a process that was designed to elect America's president," reads the Bush brief in the federal appeal. "The Florida manual recount process is being used to eliminate any possibility of an orderly, rational and final end to the election."
The federal court also agreed to consider a related case filed by three Bush supporters from Brevard County. They claim their rights are being violated because their counties are not recanvassing votes by hand.