Casting his fight for the presidency as a defense of America'sdemocratic values, Vice President Al Gore said in a nationally televisedappeal last night that he is contesting the Florida election to guarantee that"the people's will" is heard.
Fighting opinion polls which show that even some of his own voters believethat it is time to give up, Gore warned that democracy would suffer if all ofthe votes cast three weeks ago in Florida are not properly tallied.
"This is America," he said in a five-minute speech from his officialresidence in Washington. "When votes are cast, we count them."
The Democrat referred only indirectly to the decision by Florida officialsto award the state and its crucial 25 electoral votes to Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who has claimed victory.
"If the people do not, in the end, choose me, so be it," Gore said. "Theoutcome will have been fair, and the people will have spoken." He pledged towork for national unity if he is defeated.
Gore's extraordinary televised plea was designed to stop the erosion inpublic support for his position and buy time for his campaign's efforts tooverturn the election results in court.
In urging that "democracy" be "placed ahead of partisan politics," Goreasked the nation to consider the consequences of allowing the presidency to bedecided on the basis of "this inaccurate and incomplete count."
"How can you have confidence that your vote will not be ignored in somefuture election?" he asked.
Without mentioning Bush or the Republicans, Gore said that the election"would be long over" if it had not been for the other side's efforts "to blockthe process at every turn." And he repeated his argument that all the voteshave yet to be counted.
Gore blamed the delays on lawsuits filed by Bush to block the recounts,though it was the Gore campaign that first threatened to support legal actionafter the virtually dead-even Florida vote.
He defended his determination to prolong the resolution of the presidentialelection by saying: "I believe our Constitution matters more thanconvenience."
Prominent Republicans, including Bush's running mate, former DefenseSecretary Dick Cheney, have said that Gore's refusal to abandon his fightcould undermine the effectiveness of a Bush administration.
But Gore insisted that the nation "will be stronger, not weaker, if ournext president assumes office following a process that most Americans believeis fair."
"In one of God's unforeseen paths," he said, "this election may point usall to a new common ground."
Bush was certified as the winner of Florida's 25 electoral votes Sundaynight. Unless Gore's court battle succeeds, the Texas Republican would have atotal of 271 electoral votes, one more than the bare majority needed to assumethe presidency.
Yesterday, the Bush campaign plowed ahead as though the election were nolonger in doubt. Meanwhile, the Gore side worked furiously to resist theseeming inevitability of a Bush administration.
Gore's remarks capped another day of major developments, with thepresidential election fight about to enter its fourth week. Among the eventsthat took place:
The vice president's lawyers went to state court in Florida to contest theelection results. The presiding judge promised to expedite the case. But itcould be next week, at the earliest, before he issues a decision and appealsare certain.
The federal agency that oversees the transition to a new presidentialadministration rejected Bush's request for immediate release of $5.3 millionin taxpayer funds to defray his costs of assuming power in Washington. Anagency spokeswoman said uncertainty over who had won the presidential electionmade it impossible to release the money yet or to allow either candidateaccess to government offices.
Cheney announced that the Bush campaign is soliciting private contributionsto finance its transition operations. Donations of up to $5,000 will be soughtfrom individuals, but no corporate or political action committee gifts will beaccepted.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott called for hearings to start in earlyJanuary on Bush's Cabinet appointments. The Mississippi Republican referred toBush as president-elect, a term that Bush has thus far declined to usehimself.
President Clinton declined to accept Bush's victory claim and said that theFlorida courts still have to sort out the election results. "There is a legalprocess here," he said at a Cabinet meeting on transition matters that Goredid not attend. "Let's just watch this happen. It'll be over soon, and we'llbe ready for the transition."
Since Election Day, Gore has faced an uphill struggle to win thepresidency. And with the declaration by Florida's secretary of state that Bushhad won Florida's 25 electoral votes - and with it, the presidency - the oddsagainst Gore appear to have grown considerably.
The vice president faces two major obstacles in the near term: a practicalone - the Dec. 12 deadline for choosing Florida's electors - and a politicalone - the continuing fight with Bush in the court of public opinion.
His speech last night was intended, at a minimum, to keep public opinionfrom swinging sharply away from him. Recent national polls indicate thatpublic sentiment may be turning in favor of Bush, who has never lost hisnarrow lead in the Florida count and now has been stamped the winner by stateofficials.
For now, fellow Democrats are standing behind the vice president. SenateMinority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota traveled to Florida with HouseMinority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri for an event staged by theGore campaign.
"I think there's overwhelming support for your effort and a realizationthat if we completed the count, there is little doubt that you'd be ahead,"Daschle told Gore in a midday conference call from Tallahassee to the vicepresident's residence in Washington.
Gephardt added that House Democrats are "entirely supportive" of goingahead with a challenge to the official result in Florida.
However, politicians in both parties will continue to watch the polls. Amajority of Americans polled in national surveys say they believe that Goreshould concede the election. Even a significant number of Gore voters think itis time for him to abandon the fight, the polls show.
Time is also working against the vice president. The rapid approach of aDec. 12 deadline for Florida to appoint its electors gives the Democrat justtwo weeks to persuade the courts to reopen the election count - and for thatcount to give Gore enough additional votes to wipe out Bush's lead, officially537 votes out of nearly 6 million cast.
"Gore's best hope is for an activist Florida judge to do a quick count andchange the numbers," says Jan Baran, a veteran Republican election lawyer inWashington.
Gore is formally challenging the results in three Florida counties. Hislawsuit contends that a proper count of votes in those counties would reversethe outcome of the election.
Leon County Circuit Judge N. Sanders Sauls gave the Bush campaign untilFriday to respond to Gore's initial filing. But it could be this weekend, atthe earliest, before the case is heard.
A ruling might not come until next week. The losing side is almost certainto appeal any decision to the Florida Supreme Court and could decide to takethe matter into the federal courts as well.
While Gore's lawyers were urging the judge to move with dispatch, the Bushcampaign continued to act as if there were no uncertainty about who would betaking the oath of office on Jan. 20.
In Washington, Cheney began setting the Republican transition operation ingear. Showing no effects of the mild heart attack he suffered last week,Cheney told reporters in Washington that he and Bush "feel it is ourobligation to the American people" to begin "assembling the administrationthat they've chosen in this election."
Cheney criticized Gore's refusal to concede as "unfortunate" and warnedthat the nation's interests might be damaged if the prolonged election battleprevents the new administration from adequately preparing to take over.
The transition affects "the ability of the new team to deal with that firstcrisis when it arises, as it inevitably will," Cheney said.
He indicated that Bush is in the process of choosing Cabinet secretaries.He did not foreclose the possibility that some of those choices might be madepublic before the legal wrangling over the Florida vote is final. Bush isseeking "diversity" and a wide variety of backgrounds in his personnel search,Cheney added.
Given the closeness of the election and an evenly divided Congress, Cheneysaid, "we really do need to reach out to people from all walks of life, fromevery political faith, Republican and Democrat alike, to find principles wecan agree upon, programs we can develop and support mutually together."