Absentees push Bush lead to 930

Sun Reporter

George W. Bush more than tripled his slim lead over Al Gore inFlorida after a final count of overseas absentee ballots yesterday.

The Bush campaign insisted that there would have been many more Bush votesif Democratic counters had not succeeded in disqualifying hundreds of absenteeballots on technical grounds. Nearly two in five overseas ballots wererejected, according to an Associated Press survey, most of them in countieswith Democratic-controlled canvassing boards.

Gov. Marc Racicot of Montana, a leading Bush supporter, charged that Goreis directing a campaign to reject as many ballots as possible from militarypersonnel abroad "in an effort to win at any cost."

"The vice president's lawyers have gone to war, in my judgment, against themen and women who serve in our armed forces," Racicot said at Bushheadquarters in Austin, Texas. "The man who would be their commander in chiefis fighting to take away the votes from the people he would command."

Racicot, a potential Cabinet member in a Bush administration, said thecampaign hasn't made a final decision on whether to go to court to try to getthose disqualified ballots counted.

Doug Hattaway, a Gore spokesman, said he was unaware of any attempt by thevice president's campaign to prevent overseas ballots from being counted.

"Both sides were looking very closely and challenging ballots," Hattawaysaid.

Among developments yesterday, as the uncertainty over who won the electionheads into its 12th day:

Bush received 1,380 overseas ballots to 750 for Gore. That boosted theRepublican's Florida advantage to 930 votes out of nearly 6 million cast.

Lawyers for the Gore campaign filed their initial brief with the stateSupreme Court, which will hear oral arguments at 2 p.m. tomorrow. The court isconsidering the legality of manual recounts under way and whether the Floridasecretary of state must consider them before she certifies the results of theFlorida election.

The new speaker of the Florida House of Representatives said theRepublican-dominated state legislature was prepared to intervene if thepresidential election in the state is deadlocked.

Rep. Tom Feeney, a Republican, said lawyers were exploring the question ofwhether the legislature could pick the state's 25 electors, if that becomesnecessary.

Scattered demonstrations were staged by both sides, from the gates of thevice president's mansion in Washington to the streets of the Texas statecapital to sites around Florida.

Manual recounts continued in Palm Beach and Broward counties. An officialin Miami-Dade, which will begin counting tomorrow, said it could take untilDec. 1. Gore has gained 45 votes in the Broward recount, from 200 out of 609precincts.

A Florida judge delayed until Nov. 27 a hearing on a lawsuit by aDemocratic activist who is seeking to have 4,700 absentee ballots rejected inSeminole County.

Republican workers there were reportedly allowed to complete unfinishedabsentee-ballot applications returned by voters who got them from theRepublican Party, instead of having the voters do it all themselves.

The latest popular vote count nationwide shows Gore leading Bush by 262,000votes. The vice president has won 255 electoral votes and leads in Oregon,with seven electoral votes.

Bush has won 246 electoral votes. If he is awarded Florida's 25 electoralvotes, he would have 271, one more than the number needed to win thepresidency. But until Florida's high court acts, neither candidate can becertified as the winner of the state's electoral votes.

Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a Republican, had beenprepared to declare Bush the winner yesterday, after the count of overseasabsentee ballots. But the state Supreme Court intervened late Friday andblocked her from doing so until further notice.

The overseas votes could still be the last ballots tallied, unlessFlorida's high court directs the state to include the results of hand recountsin the final tabulation.

It is also unclear whether Gore will gain enough additional votes toovertake Bush, even if the manual counts from three largely Democraticcounties are taken into account.

Initial rounds of hand counting in south Florida counties have not turnedup a large number of new votes for the vice president. Projections conductedfor the Democratic Party by academicians, including Christopher Carroll, aJohns Hopkins University economist, have indicated that the potential increasefor Gore could be as small as the 500-600 vote range, which would not beenough for him to win now.

Gore campaign officials continue to express optimism that enough additionalGore votes will be found by the time the counting ends, a process that couldextend into next week.

"Governor Bush did not pick up the percentage anticipated in the overseasvotes," said Gore spokesman Hattaway in a conference call with reporters. "Weare very optimistic that the hand counting in South Florida will make up thedifference."

Bush won nearly two-thirds of the final overseas ballots count, a figurethat matched or exceeded the projections of most analysts. But because morethan 1,000 ballots were thrown out on technical grounds, the overall number ofballots counted was smaller than expected, and Bush's advantage may well havebeen reduced as a result.

According to news reports from around the state, most, but not all, of therejected ballots were thrown out because of Democratic objections, over suchmatters as missing or indistinct postmarks or illegible dates and signatures.

The Bush campaign also drew attention to a Miami Herald report that atleast 39 felons, most of them Democrats, cast illegal absentee ballots inBroward and Miami-Dade counties. It also released a statement from retiredGen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, a prominent Bush supporter who lives in Tampa,Fla.

Calling it "a very sad day in our country" that members of the armed forceshad their votes denied "because of some technicality out of their control,"Schwarzkopf asked that their ballots be allowed to be tallied "for the sake offairness."

The retired Army general, who commanded U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf warunder Bush's father, appeared with the Texas governor during the fallcampaign.

Schwarzkopf was also featured in a television ad this fall from Harris'office, which urged Floridians to vote. Critics such as Common Cause arguedthat because the general was a well-known Bush backer, he should not have beenfeatured in the state-sponsored ad.

As Bush's lawyers prepared to file their brief today with the FloridaSupreme Court, the campaign previewed its legal argument against the manualrecounts under way in largely Democratic counties.

Racicot said the Bush campaign had uncovered "clear and convincingevidence" that the hand counting has become "completely untrustworthy." Hequoted from sworn statements provided to the Bush campaign by Floridians whosaid they had witnessed a range of irregularities.

They included chads taped over ballot holes that should have been countedfor Bush, "overworked and burned out" elderly vote counters, Bush ballotsmistakenly placed to be counted in Gore piles and chads scattered all over thecounting room in Broward County.

"When the American people learn about these things, they're going to askthemselves what in the name of God is going on here," Racicot said.

Bush spent the day conducting state business, while his running mate, Dick Cheney, flew home to McLean, Va.

Karen P. Hughes, Bush's communications director, said both men remainupbeat, a word she has repeatedly used to describe their mood since theelection. She also said Bush and Cheney were "very pleased" with the outcomeof the overseas ballot tabulation.

"Florida's votes have now been counted and recounted," Hughes said. "All ofthose counts show that Governor Bush and Secretary Cheney won the state ofFlorida."

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