In an attempt to grab the high ground in the presidentialballot count, Al Gore issued a surprise offer last night to drop any legalchallenge to the Florida election if hand recounts are permitted to go forwardin three heavily Democratic counties.
But in a dizzying series of events, Florida's Republican secretary of staterefused a few hours later to include the hand counts in her official tally.
And George W. Bush, one hour after that, summarily rejected Gore'sproposal.
The election should be resolved not by "deals or efforts to mold publicopinion," the Texas governor said, but "by the votes and by the law."
Gore, in the first public comment by either candidate after two days ofdeepening confusion and chaos in Florida, also offered to abide by the outcomeof a statewide manual recount, if Bush preferred that alternative.
"The campaign is over, but a test of our democracy is now under way," thevice president said in a hastily announced statement just after 6:30 p.m. Hisrunning mate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, was at his side.
Gore extended an invitation for a face-to-face meeting with his Republicanrival before the results in Florida are final. That meeting would be intended"not to negotiate" but as a show of national unity, he said.
Bush rushed back to Austin from his central Texas ranch to deliver aresponse at 10:15 p.m. Like Gore, he read his statement over national TV fromhis official residence.
Both men projected a statesmanlike tone, saying the nation's interestsshould come before their own.
But Bush turned thumbs-down on Gore's proposal of a statewide manual count.He said it would make the vote tally "less accurate" because repeated handlingof the ballots would introduce further error into the process.
Bush said the Gore proposal was nothing new, even though the vice presidentoffered for the first time to abandon any legal action in connection with theelection.
Bush also rejected the Democrat's offer to meet before the tally iscomplete. He did say he'd be glad to get together with Gore after the electionis decided.
In line with efforts by his campaign to bring the dispute to an end by thisweekend, Bush made it clear that he expected a winner in Florida to be knownby Saturday, when Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris intends tocertify the results.
The vice president's unexpected offer was the first direct effort by eitherof the candidates to propose an end to the post-election season.
Gore addressed several of the concerns of politicians in both parties,including the fear that a bitter struggle over the election results couldpoison the atmosphere for whoever wins the presidency.
He urged his supporters and Bush's to "lift up this discourse, to refrainfrom using inflammatory language and to avoid statements that could make itharder for our country to come together once the counting is over." If hewins, Gore said, he'd be ready to travel to Texas to meet with Bush; if heloses, he added, he'd meet the governor wherever Bush wanted.
Gore also appealed to what polls show is the public's desire to see thematter settled through counting, rather than legal action. He said he wouldnot take or support legal action to challenge the Florida count, if the manualrecounts are allowed to continue.
And he spoke to those who want to see the matter resolved quickly bypredicting that a "fair and final" outcome could be reached relatively soonunder his proposal. Even a statewide hand recount, Gore said, should take nomore than a week to complete.
"It's a smart tactic," said John J. Pitney of Claremont McKenna College inPomona, Calif. "He is trying to seize the rhetorical high ground. On the otherhand, he very much wants a process that will be very favorable to hiselection."
Gore trails Bush by 300 votes in the official vote tally in Florida,pending the count of overseas absentee ballots tomorrow.
Unless the manually recounted ballots are included, Gore is unlikely towin, many politicians on both sides believe. By most estimates, thetraditionally Republican overseas ballots could add several hundred votes toBush's current margin.
Democrats are hopeful that a hand recount of some 1.6 million ballots inthe largely Democratic counties of Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade wouldturn up enough additional votes for Gore to push him ahead of Bush. TheFlorida Supreme Court allowed the hand counts to go forward yesterday, butHarris, a co-chairwoman of the Bush campaign in the state, said last nightthat they would not be included in her final tally.
In addition, officials in Miami-Dade, after conducting a preliminary manualcount, have decided not to recount the entire county. Democrats havechallenged that decision, and Gore's offer may have been intended to put newpressure on county officials to change their minds.
National polls show that the public is willing to await a fair and completecount of the votes in Florida to determine the outcome of the presidentialelection.
Gore's offer "puts Bush in the box of defending what the American peoplethink is indefensible, which is shutting off the count before the count iscompleted," said Paul Maslin, a Democratic pollster.
Both sides have indicated, by their words and actions over the past week,that they believe Gore might gain from a manual recount of the ballots, whichmany states, including Texas, require as a check on machine counts.
The Bush campaign has gone to court to try to block the hand counts. Unlessthe courts intervene, Harris could well certify Bush as the victor in Floridaon Saturday, adding to a growing public perception that the Republican will bethe next president, Maslin said.
Gore's offer to resolve the matter with a relatively swift count, with apromise not to drag out the matter in the courts, could be his best way ofsignaling to voters that he shares their desire for finality, the Democraticpollster added.
Gore said last night that his proposal would "settle this matter withfinality and justice in a period of days, not weeks."
And, in his first public comments on the subject of manual vote counts, hemaintained that "machines can sometimes misread or fail to detect the wayballots are cast." Gore added that "a careful hand count is accepted far andwide as the best way to know the true intentions of the voters."
Gore's offer to take the matter out of the legal arena is a sharp reversalof the position announced by his campaign last week, which was the first tothreaten to back legal action.
Perhaps the main legal action that Gore would abandon, as a result of hisproposal, is the challenges that have been filed to the "butterfly ballot" inPalm Beach County. Many legal analysts have suggested that those lawsuits areunlikely to result in any significant change in the count.
The Gore campaign sees the hand counts in Democratic counties as his bestchance to take the lead in the Florida count. By offering to let hispresidential ambitions rise or fall with the results of those hand counts inthree counties, Gore is taking a calculated risk that he will gain enoughvotes to wipe out Bush's margin.
"I don't know what the final results will show," Gore said. "But I do knowthis is about much more than what happens to me or my opponent. It is aboutour democracy. My faith is in the people's will, in our Constitution and inour system of self-government."