Gov. George W. Bush's plans to claim victory this weekend wereput on hold yesterday, after the Florida Supreme Court unexpectedly barred thestate from certifying the results of the presidential election.
Bush's slim margin over Vice President Al Gore in Florida grew to 760 votesearly this morning as overseas absentee ballots were counted, according to anunofficial Associated Press tally. Bush, the Republican candidate, was leadingDemocrat Gore by 1,057 to 597 in absentee ballots, based on returns from 65 of67 counties.
But no winner will be declared in the Sunshine State until next week, atthe earliest.
The court's decision to block Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harrisfrom certifying Bush the winner this afternoon took both sides by surprise.Gore campaign lawyers had decided not to make a legal effort to stop her,explaining that her actions could be reversed later in the courts.
By allowing the hand counts to continue, at least until it has a chance tohear arguments in the case Monday afternoon, the state's high court has givenGore and the Democrats a chance to take an unofficial lead in a vote countthat has, up to now, narrowly favored Bush.
The decision by the Democratic-dominated Florida court spared Gore, atleast temporarily, from a serious public relations setback. Bush had beenexpected to use the certification by Harris to promote himself as the winnerin Florida - and, presumably, as president-elect.
Gore, who was moments away from issuing a televised statement pleading withthe nation for more time, praised the state Supreme Court ruling as "soimportant" to obtaining "a fair and accurate count to resolve this election."
Bush made no comment, and his campaign took more than three hours to reactto the news. Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III read a tersestatement expressing confidence that the court would eventually conclude thatHarris "properly exercised her discretion and followed the law" in rejectingmanual recounts.
A fourth county, Miami-Dade, the state's most populous, reversed a previousdecision against manual tallies and announced yesterday that it would begincounting by hand.
Baker, the top Bush surrogate in Florida, pointed out that neither side hadsought the state court's order barring Harris from certifying the election.
A top Republican in Congress was much less restrained. Rep. Tom DeLay ofTexas, the Republican whip, said the court's order "reeks of judicialactivism."
DeLay, who has circulated information to House members explaining howCongress has the power to reject the results of the Electoral College vote,accused the Florida court and the Gore campaign of "creating a situation thatmay result in a constitutional crisis. ... Make no mistake, we are witnessingnothing less than a theft in progress" of the election.
For the candidates, and their supporters, the 10th day of the gruelingballot-counting battle was perhaps the most turbulent.
By midmorning, Bush had appeared to take a major step toward winning theelection when a Florida circuit judge cleared the way for Harris to certifyBush as the winner today. As local officials around the state began countingabsentee ballots from overseas, Bush's lead began to grow, as Republicansfigured it would, and Republicans appeared confident their candidate wouldprevail at last.
But, by nightfall, Gore had received his 11th-hour reprieve from Florida'shighest court, and Democrats were expressing relief, based on early returns,that Bush's advantage in the overseas voting would be smaller than expected.
Meantime, Bush was dealt a second legal blow. A federal appeals court inAtlanta last night rejected his request to immediately stop the Florida handcounts. The Florida Supreme Court order delaying certification of the electionresults also allows the hand recounts to continue.
The rulings gave election officials more time to conduct the manualrecounts, which appear to give Gore his only hope of winning Florida and theWhite House.
It is not clear whether Gore will pick up enough additional votes in thehand counts to overtake Bush. The vice president has been slowly gaining votesin the recounts, which could take up to a week or more to complete, countyofficials said.
Gore also needs a ruling from the Florida Supreme Court that the manualrecounts must be included in the official tally by the state. Otherwise, hewill lose.
Florida's secretary of state had planned to certify today that Bush had wonFlorida's 25 electoral votes. That would have given him 271 electoral votes,one more than the number needed to win the presidency.
Members of the Bush family had gathered in Austin, Texas, amid speculationthat he would declare himself the winner of one of the closest presidentialcontests in history.
Bush's vice-presidential running mate, Dick Cheney, confirmed in a networkTV interview Thursday night that Bush was prepared to claim victory today ifhe was certified the winner in Florida - even if the hand counts werecontinuing.
By early afternoon, senior Bush aides in Austin were all smiles. Thegovernor was returning to the state capital from his rural ranch for what manyexpected would be a long-delayed victory celebration.
Their optimism had been fed by a key ruling, hours earlier, from JudgeTerry P. Lewis of Leon County Circuit Court. In a brief order, he upheldSecretary of State Harris' refusal to include the hand recounts in theofficial vote totals.
The judge's decision, which seriously hurt Gore's prospects, caught thevice president's advisers by surprise. The usually cautious WarrenChristopher, Gore's top representative in Florida, had said in a morning TVinterview that he didn't expect an unfavorable decision from the judge.
With her decision on the hand recounts approved by a judge, Harris was in aposition to declare Bush the winner. All that was required was the finalcount, early today, of a couple of thousand overseas absentee ballots, whichhad long been expected to pad Bush's tiny lead in the state.
"The rule of law has prevailed," Baker, the senior Bush adviser on thescene, told reporters in Tallahassee after the Lewis ruling. For the firsttime since his arrival more than a week ago, Baker refused to take questionsfrom the news media, apparently to avoid muddying the positive news.
Not so fast, countered the Gore side, at their news conference.
Former Secretary of State Christopher warned Bush against premature"partying." He also urged Harris not to certify the election, arguing that sheshould wait until the Florida Supreme Court had ruled on the matter. That"would tend to enhance the legitimacy of Governor Bush if he is ultimately thewinner," Christopher said.
David Boies, the top lawyer on Gore's team, said, "You don't sort of callthe end of the game after the first inning or the second inning, if you getahead. You wait for the entire game to be played. And this is something thatwill be resolved in the Florida Supreme Court. It's a matter, again, of days,not weeks."
But Boies also indicated that the campaign would not try to stop Harrisfrom declaring Bush the winner and said that, as a legal matter, Gore wouldnot suffer irreparable harm if she did so. He outlined plans for the vicepresident to formally contest the results of the election, as permitted understate law.
Gore risks political damage, however, if he is forced to go to court toundo the official tally, a process that could take weeks.
Opinion polls indicate that there are two competing elements in thenation's attitude toward the continued wrangling over who won the election."The public wants fairness," says independent pollster Andrew Kohut of the PewResearch Center. "But they don't want it to be long and drawn out."
Late yesterday afternoon, before there was word from the state SupremeCourt on when, or even whether, it would act, Gore prepared to deliver a briefnationally televised statement from the steps of his official residence here.
Campaign aides said he planned to plead with the public for more time, withBush apparently on his way to being certified as the winner by Harris. WhenGore finally emerged - after getting the news that Florida's high court hadstopped her from doing so - he said he was pleased that the manual counts werecontinuing, "despite efforts to obstruct them."
"That is why the decision just announced by the Florida Supreme Court,"Gore added, "is so important."
Gore, who has urged both sides to soften their rhetoric, issued his firstdirect reference to Harris, a Republican and a state co-chairman of Bush'scampaign, who has become a major target for Democratic critics. "NeitherGovernor Bush, nor the Florida secretary of state, nor I will be the arbiterof this election," Gore said. "This election is a matter that must be decidedby the will of the people as expressed under the rule of law, law which hasmeaning as determined in Florida now by the Florida Supreme Court."
Much later, but still in time for the network TV news in much of thecountry, Baker went before the cameras. He pointed out that the FloridaSupreme Court had yet to make a ruling on the merits of the election disputeand also expressed disappointment that the federal appeals court had refusedBush's request to stop the hand counts.