For more than two weeks, Florida's ballot saga has spun outmore plot twists than a Tom Clancy thriller. But Day 15 surpassed them all.
George W. Bush ended it on an upswing, though not before his prospects -and quite possibly his spirits - hit their lowest point since election night.
The turnaround came when Florida Democratic officials stunned Al Gore'scampaign by aborting a manual recount in vote-rich Miami-Dade County. Thatdecision is potentially a fatal blow to Gore's chances of overtaking Bush, ashand counters in two other counties race to meet a Sunday deadline.
The Texas governor's slender edge in Florida has been chopped down to 801votes, out of nearly 6 million cast, according to the latest unofficial total.And it is by no means clear that the piles of ballots still to be counted willcontain enough additional Gore votes to change the outcome.
When the history of the presidential election is written, Nov. 22 may wellbe viewed as a turning point. Among the major events of a fast-moving day:
Republican vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney suffered a mild heartattack, and doctors inserted a stent to open a 90 percent-clogged artery. The59-year-old Bush transition chief, who has a history of heart problems, wasadmitted to a Washington hospital in the predawn hours after experiencingchest pains at his northern Virginia home.
The U.S. Supreme Court - where some politicians believe the election willultimately be decided - was drawn into the fray for the first time. The Bushcamp asked the court to reverse the Florida Supreme Court's landmark order,which requires hand recounts - that currently favor Gore - included in theofficial vote tally. A ruling by the justices could come as early as tomorrow.
Gore's campaign rushed back into court to try to force Miami-Dade County toresume its hand recount. The county's Democratic controlled canvassing boardsaid it wasn't sure it could meet a Sunday deadline set by the state SupremeCourt for completing its count. The board also voted not to submit the resultsof its partial recount, which had already netted Gore 157 votes. A stateappeals court last night upheld the decision to stop the count, and the Gorecampaign vowed to appeal to the Florida Supreme Court.
What seemed to be another court victory for Gore was in danger of meltingaway. A Palm Beach judge, in an order late in the afternoon, appeared tosanction the counting of "dimpled ballots," those in which the vote failed topenetrate the computer card. But the county canvassing board indicated that itmight stick to a tougher standard. Lawyers for Bush and Gore were invited tothrash out that issue tomorrow morning, before counting resumes.
Republicans in the GOP-dominated Florida legislature threatened to call aspecial session to reverse the state Supreme Court's order and award thestate's 25 electoral votes to Bush. The Republican speaker of the FloridaHouse accused the court of sparking "a potential constitutional crisis" in thestate.
The state Supreme Court's ruling had initially been regarded as a majorvictory for Gore. It appeared to open the way for him to pick up enough votesto snatch Florida's 25 electoral votes away from Bush-and with it thepresidency.
A smiling Gore, with his running mate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman at hisside, had welcomed the ruling with a short TV speech from the vice-president'sresidence late Tuesday night. Bush, meantime, kept out of public sight behindthe iron gates of the Texas governor's mansion in Austin.
It was left to former Secretary of State James A. Baker III to launch theBush camp's counter-attack, in a blistering attack that ran past midnight andinto yesterday morning. Baker accused Florida's highest court of rewriting thestate's election law and left no doubt that the Bush forces were prepared todo whatever it took to prevent the ruling from deciding the election.
Less than six hours after Baker spoke, Bush was awakened in Austin by acall from his close friend and campaign chairman, Don Evans. The news: DickCheney had suffered chest pains and had been hospitalized in the nation'scapital at 4:30 a.m.
A few hours later, it was Bush's turn to address the nation from apresidential setting. Dressed in a business suit, a U.S. flag behind him, thegovernor began his remarks from the Texas Capitol with an upbeat report on hisrunning mate's condition.
"He had no heart attack. I'm pleased to report that," said Bush. "DickCheney is healthy."
Aides said later that Bush was unware that, at that moment, Cheney lay onhis back in the cardiac unit at George Washington hospital, a few blocks fromthe White House. Doctors were threading a catheter into a coronary artery andinserting a stainless steel stent to improve the flow of blood to his heart.Tests would confirm that he had suffered a mild heart attack, at least hisfourth since 1978.
In Bush's TV speech, he picked up where Baker had left off in his assaulton the Florida court's unanimous ruling. The Republican nominee accused thejustices of legislating from the bench in an attempt to "usurp" the authorityof Florida election officials, including the secretary of state, RepublicanKatherine Harris.
"Make no mistake. The court rewrote the law. It changed the rules, and itdid so after the election was over," Bush said in a firm, clear voice.
Bush went on to declare his belief that he had won the election. He alsoappeared, for the first time, to question the legitimacy of a Gore presidency,should the Democrat wind up winning the election.
"I believe Secretary Cheney and I won the vote in Florida," he said. "Ibelieve some are determined to keep counting in an effort to change thelegitimate result."
Bush did not respond to Gore's request, renewed the night before, for aface-to-face meeting between the two candidates. But the governor made anoffer of his own: that Gore call on local election officials in Florida tocount all military ballots that were signed an received on time.
Later in the day, the Bush campaign filed a lawsuit in Tallahassee, asking13 counties to reconsider hundreds of disqualified military ballots. Newsreports from Florida indicate that the proportion of military absentee ballotsthrown out last week was no greater than four years ago.
If the courts order more military ballots counted, Bush is likely to gainvotes. There were 646 overseas ballots disqualified in the affected counties;it is not known how many were from members of the armed forces.
While Bush was making his first statements on the Florida Supreme Courtdecision, it was Gore's day to avoid public comments. The vice president andhis wife packed boxes of food for the needy, as they do each Thanksgivingseason, while campaign chairman Willliam Daley prepared to speak to reportersoutside the vice-president's residence, Gore's command post for much of thepast two weeks.
Just before Daley stepped out to give an optimistic report on developmentsin Florida, the Miami-Dade canvassing board cut the Gore camp off at theknees.
On a unanimous vote, following a morning of acrimony that included raucousRepublicans protesting the recount , Miami Dade's Democratic canvassing boardopted to abandon its manual recount.
David Leahy, the board chairman, explained that it seemed impossible torecount more than 617,000 ballots by the 5 p.m. Sunday deadline set in theFlorida Supreme Court's ruling Tuesday. (actually, the justices had leftHarris, the secretary of state, the option of giving the counties until 9 a.m.on Monday; she declined).
A partial count might disenfranchise some voters in the county, Leahy said,in explaining the board's decision to return to its Nov. 8th count.
Gore's campaign asked a Florida judge late yesterday for an emergency orderto continue the recount and to include the ballots already counted in thefinal tally. If that request is rejected, Gore would lose 157 votes alreadytallied-and the possibility of gaining hundreds more.
Clearly shaken, Daley told reporters that the Gore camp was "disappointed"with the Miami-Dade board's decision (the same word Bush had used earlier inthe day to describe his reaction to the Supreme Court's ruling).
The two remaining counties, both heavily Democratic, where counts arecontinuing, have given Gore a net gain of 129 votes so far.
Broward County, where Gore gained 137 votes, has yet to count thousands ofdisputed ballots. The same is true in Palm Beach County, where Bush has pickedup 14 votes. More than half the precincts there remain to be counted.
Democrats maintain that there are still enough potential votes in Browardand Palm Beach to swing the election for Gore. But the vice president'schances would be far brighter, they concede, if Miami-Dade continued to count.
Daley, the Gore chairman, dismissed as "hypothetical" a question aboutwhether the vice president could get enough votes without Miami-Dade to passBush by the Sunday deadline.
Not long after he spoke, doctors at George Washington hospital briefed thepress and the nation on Cheney's condition. They reported that the GOPvice-presidential nominee would likely be released in two to three days andcould resume his normal activities in a few weeks.
Not until a second briefing, however, and a flury of questions fromreporters who did not attend the first session, did the doctors concede thatCheney had suffered a "very slight" heart attack.
Cheney's latest heart problems could further complicate the alreadydifficult task facing Bush, as he attempts to make plans to staff a possiblenew administration while the ballot battle continues. Cheney had been named tohead up the Bush transition effort, drawing on his experience as White Housechief of staff in the Ford administration.
As doctors in Washington were scrambling to patch their embarassingcredibility gap, the Bush campaign was in the process of taking the electionto the U.S. Supreme Court.
Arguing that Florida's justices had acted unconstitutionally in requiringthat hand recounts be added to the official vote tally, Bush asked the SupremeCourt to declare the election at an end and allow Harris to certify a winneron the basis of returns received by last weekend. That, of course, would makeBush the winner.
Unless the justices intervene, Bush lawyers argued, "the consequences maywell include the ascension of a president of questionable legitimacy or aconstitutional crisis." The current situation in Florida, they added, "borderson anarchy." A ruling could come as early as tomorrow.
Down in Florida, as the day was drawing to a close, Republicans wereflexing their political clout and turning up the heat on the Gore campaign.
Republican Rep. Thomas C. Feeney III, the speaker of the state House of Representatives, said he had requested legal advice on the GOP-dominatedlegislature's role in choosing Florida's electors, should that becomenecessary.
Feeney echoed the Bush campaign's warning that a crisis is looming and saidthe state legislature "intends to uphold the Florida constitution." Hisremarks reflected the Republicans' determination to make sure that the state's25 electoral votes are counted - for Bush.
"This is Thanksgiving eve," added the GOP leader. "I think we can all relaxand take a deep breath, at least for 24 hours."
Gore and Bush planned to spend the holiday in Washington, D.C. and Texas,respectively.
Any hopes for a grander celebration by either man, however, were lost daysago in the uncertainty over the election.
During the campaign, Bush liked to joke that it would be "kind of tougharound the old Thanksgiving dinner table" for his younger brother, Jeb, theFlorida governor, if he lost the Sunshine State.
A spokeswoman for the Bush campaign said Jeb Bush and his family would bespending the holiday in Florida and will not be with his brother today.