Then, just as suddenly, all the effort didn't matter. With a stroke of a pen Sunday night, Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris erased the gargantuan pile of hand-counted ballots, nearly 400,000 in all.
Palm Beach officials missed their deadline for finishing a complete manual recount of the county's presidential votes by about two hours. When the deadline came, they still had about 1,000 ballots left to count - and they continued counting for two extra hours. Ultimately, the canvassing board turned in a tally with a majority of precincts accounted for.
But that didn't satisfy Harris, who rejected the huge manual recount and certified the last machine count that was conducted by the county on Nov. 14. Harris threw out about 180 votes that Vice President Al Gore would have picked up.
"It's a slap in the face to all these people who spent a lot of time to do it," County Judge Charles Burton, the canvassing board's chairman, said with a trace of bitterness.
Burton gave a final news conference on the raised platform in front of the Emergency Operations Center that had become home to elections officials, out-of-town politicians, demonstrators and journalists from around the globe for nearly two weeks.
But he was alone this time, under a storm-threatening sky. Absent were his fellow elections commissioners: Carol Roberts, who had declared her willingness to go to jail if state officials blocked the massive hand recount, and Theresa LePore, the beleaguered elections supervisor who had designed the much-maligned "butterfly" ballot assailed by many Democrats as confusing and costly in votes to Gore.
Burton defended the board's decision to take the Thanksgiving holiday off, even though it meant a failed, round-the-clock race to finish the recount.
"I really believed we could make it," he said. "You can't go second-guessing."
Earlier, as the grueling examination and counting of ballot cards finally reached its end around 7 p.m., the bleary-eyed Roberts and LePore embraced each other and Democratic and Republican observers.
Lead GOP observer Mark Wallace patted Burton who a few hours earlier had publicly yelled at him on the shoulder. Awkward applause broke out in the chilly amphitheater, which normally is used as a hurricane emergency center and days earlier had been filled with ballot counters recruited for the task.
Then about 30 minutes later, disappointed Democrats gathered to watch Harris' announcement on an overhead TV screen.
The room grew hushed as she read out the statewide vote totals she certified: 2,912,790 for Bush, 2,912,253 for Gore. Then came the words: "I hereby declare Governor George W. ush the winner of Florida's 25 electoral votes for president of the United States."
"Disappointing, disappointing," muttered state Sen. Ron Klein, a Democrat.
U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, one of the visiting politicians, insisted that "the election is not over."
CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report