The fight for Florida's electoral votes shifts to a Miamicourtroom today, with each side digging in its heels over a manual recount ofpresidential ballots.
Texas Gov. George W. Bush, whose minuscule lead in Florida has beenshrinking to below 300 votes as more ballots are recounted by hand, is askingthe federal courts to rule that the state's election law is unconstitutionaland call a halt to further recounting.
U.S. District Judge Donald M. Middlebrooks, a Clinton appointee, hasscheduled a hearing for this morning on Bush's request for an injunction tostop manual recounts in four heavily Democratic counties. Vice President Al Gore's camp sought the new tallies in hopes of turning up more votes for him.
Representatives of both presidential candidates trod the television talkshow circuit yesterday, while officials in one Florida county, Volusia, beganthe tedious job of recounting 185,000 ballots by hand.
Gore's campaign drew encouragement from a preliminary hand count in PalmBeach County, where officials decided about 2 a.m. yesterday to manually countall of the votes cast in Tuesday's election - some 470,000 ballots. Gorenarrowed Bush's already-slender edge in a test examination of ballots fromfour Palm Beach precincts, representing about 1 percent of the vote cast, overthe weekend.
Statewide, Bush's advantage over Gore has shrunk to 288 votes, according tothe latest Associated Press count. The official total by the office ofFlorida's secretary of state shows Bush 960 votes ahead but does not includereturns from Palm Beach County.
Yet to be counted are an undetermined number of overseas absentee ballots,which must be received by Friday. That is the earliest date that an answermight be found to the pivotal question of which presidential candidate carriedthe Sunshine State, though it could well take longer.
Neither side is ruling out the possibility that all 6 million ballots inFlorida could wind up being counted manually before it is over in the state,whose 25 electoral votes will likely decide the next president.
Nationally, Gore leads Bush by 216,000 votes. His campaign continues tocall him the winner in the popular vote, though it will take several weeksbefore all ballots are counted.
The vice president is also clinging to a 255-246 electoral vote advantageover the Texas governor in the race to the 270 needed to win. Besides Florida,the results are not final in Oregon, with seven electoral votes, where Goreleads by less than 6,000 votes, and in New Mexico, with five electoral votes,where Bush was ahead by 17 votes.
Based on the slow progress of the initial hand count in Palm Beach County -it took almost 10 hours to count 4,600 ballots - it could take days to countall the votes by hand in the state's largest counties.
In Miami-Dade, officials plan to decide tomorrow whether to grant theDemocrats' request for a recount of more than 620,000 ballots. Volusia Countywill go to state court today to request an order allowing the count there tocontinue beyond the deadline of 5 p.m. tomorrow, when all counties aresupposed to certify their results.
However, officials in Volusia, which includes Daytona Beach, expressedoptimism last night that their hand count might be finished as early as thisevening. Manual recounts were completed yesterday in almost half the county's172 precincts.
Around the country, senior figures from both parties continued to stressthe need for closure and urged Bush and Gore to put the national interestahead of their own ambitions.
Former Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, a Democrat, issued a statement urging bothmen to act "in a manner worthy of the office they seek."
Nunn said Gore "should make it clear that he would concede the victory toGovernor Bush if he loses Florida after the more scrupulous recount and thecounting of the absentee ballots."
Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said "litigation is not theanswer" and that both sides should agree to let Florida's results decide theelection.
The Bush campaign is preparing to request recounts in states where Goreleads or appears to have won by a narrow margin, including Wisconsin, Iowa andOregon.
The Republican point man in Florida, former Secretary of State James A.Baker III, reiterated Bush's offer to drop his lawsuit in federal court if theGore campaign would agree to abandon its request for hand recounts and abideby the official total in the state when the overseas absentee ballots arecounted.
Overseas ballots have favored the Republican candidate in the past threepresidential elections in Florida, and Bush aides say they expect them tofavor him this week.
"This would not be tied up in the courts for another hour if the Gorecampaign would simply agree to abide by the results of a proper count of theoverseas absentee ballots," said Baker, who rejected the idea that the Bushcamp is fearful of what a hand count might bring.
Bush campaign officials argued that their position against manual recountswas strengthened by confusion in Palm Beach County on Saturday over whichballots to count and which to throw out.
They also pointed to what they termed a significant difference between aTexas law, signed by Governor Bush in 1997, which calls hand counts superiorto machine counts, and the process in Florida. The Texas law prescribesstandards to guide officials in manual tallies, while Florida leaves thosedecisions to the discretion of individual election commissions in each county.
Baker said the "subjective" process in Florida "opens up tremendouspossibilities for human error" and "for mischief." He acknowledged, however,that he had no evidence that there has been any wrongdoing in the initial handcounts, which are being closely watched by representatives of both campaigns.
The Gore camp, while increasingly optimistic that its hand-recount strategywould deliver the presidency to their man, has refused to rule out futurelegal action.
The Bush campaign was the first to go to court, but that move followed apublic threat by the Gore team to back legal challenges to the election byGore voters in Florida.
Gore chairman William M. Daley said the campaign would continue to examine"all options," including filing a legal challenge, over what Gore's lawyersregard as an illegal ballot in Palm Beach County, which apparently confusedmany voters.
Individual Democrats in Florida have filed a number of lawsuits in statecourts over that disputed Palm Beach ballot, demanding a revote in the county.
The Bush campaign says the Democrats will keep recounting until theyfinally get an outcome that favors Gore.
Bush is asking Judge Middlebrooks to assume responsibility over thelawsuits that have been filed in state courts, apparently on the theory thatthere would be less chance that he would take the drastic step of ordering anew election than would a state judge.
The Bush campaign has not requested a hand recount, saying that it opposesthem "as a matter of principle" in Florida. But Baker said yesterday on NBC's"Meet the Press" that the Bush campaign has missed a deadline for demanding ahand recount in only "one or two" counties.
The Bush campaign is not ruling out a request for a manual recountstatewide. "When you do it in just selected counties, you don't treat allvoters the same way," Baker said.
It would be up to Bush and his running mate, Dick Cheney, to decide whetherto demand recounts in other states, if the court fails to halt the latestFlorida recount, Baker said.
Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Gore's chief surrogate inFlorida, disputed the Bush side's claim that machines can count more reliablythan humans.
"Machine counts are very often inaccurate, just as ... your own credit cardbills are sometimes inaccurate," Christopher said. Because the results inFlorida will determine the next president, "there's a very great justificationfor having the hand count to check the machine count," he added.
The Gore campaign would "certainly consider" a statewide hand recount,Christopher said, while pointing out that the Bush side hasn't proposed thatyet.
The longest vote count in a modern presidential election will soon enterits second week without a winner. But the Gore adviser said the public needsto be patient for a while longer.
Christopher noted that only five of the 75 days between the election andthe presidential inauguration have passed, and predicted that the final resultwould be known in "a matter of days - not weeks, not months."
While their spokesmen jousted over the airwaves, the candidates keptlargely out of the spotlight.
Bush remained at his rural Texas ranch, where he continued to maketransition plans with Cheney and other top advisers.
Gore, after attending church with his family in Northern Virginia,retreated to his official mansion, where he held strategy discussions withcampaign aides.
The vice president has tried to project an air of relaxed indifference overthe uncertain outcome of the election. On Saturday night, he and his runningmate, Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, and their wives, went to see thenew movie "Men of Honor" at a northwest Washington shopping mall.
Cuba Gooding Jr. and Robert DeNiro star in the film about the uphillstruggle of a black enlistee in the Navy. Billboards promoting the movie carrythe slogan: "History is made by those who break the rules."
While Gore and company were at the theater, officials in Palm Beach Countywere struggling to complete their preliminary recount of four test precincts.
The tabulation came at 2 a.m. yesterday, after more than nine hours,prompting Palm Beach County Commissioner Carol Roberts, a member of thecounty's three-member canvassing board, to call for a manual recount of allthe county's nearly 470,000 ballots.
She argued that the results changed enough to indicate that a countywidecount would yield enough votes to give a Florida victory to Gore. Her actionwas strenuously opposed by board member Charles Burton, a circuit judge andDemocrat appointed to the bench by Bush's younger brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
It also drew the ire of Republicans, who questioned the validity of thecount that started Saturday and carried into yesterday morning.
"It has been utter pandemonium today," protested Mark Wallace, an attorneyfor the Republicans. "It has been painful, uncertain and bizarre all day long.It's simply wrong, and we've vigorously lodged our protests and urge you notto put the country through this."
The manual countywide tabulation was approved 2-1 by the board, withRoberts and Theresa LePore, the elections supervisor who designed the"butterfly ballot," voting in favor. Burton wanted the board to seek anopinion from Florida's secretary of state before moving ahead.
"I think we need to move cautiously," Burton said afterward. "What you'reasking three people to do is subjectively determine what a vote is. As humanbeings, we can do the best job we can do."
The hand recount of more than 4,600 ballots cast by 1 percent of the votersin Palm Beach County found 33 more votes for Gore and 14 more votes for Bush -a net gain of 19 votes for the Democrat. The manual count also kept track ofballots punched for more than one presidential candidate, finding thattwo-thirds of 156 "overvoted" ballots included a vote for Gore and one for thecandidate above or below him on the ballot.
Those numbers appeared to lend credence to the Democrats' argument that thebutterfly ballot confused voters, many of them elderly, and led many to votemistakenly for Reform Party candidate Patrick J. Buchanan. Democratic Partyofficials say voters may have realized the mistake and tried to correct it,thereby disqualifying their ballots by voting twice. The voters could haverequested new ballots, but many were unaware that they could, Democrats haveargued.
The three-member canvassing board will meet again this morning to determinehow to proceed with the recount. If the weekend count is any indication, ahand count of every Palm Beach County precinct could drag on for weeks.
"Multiply tonight by 99," Burton said after the marathon session Saturdayand early yesterday.
Sun staff writer Stephanie Desmon contributed to this article.