Campaign moves to courtroom

The fight for Florida's electoral votes shifts to a Miami courtroom today, with each side digging in its heels over a manual recount of presidential ballots.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush, whose minuscule lead in Florida has been shrinking to below 300 votes as more ballots are recounted by hand, is asking the federal courts to rule that the state's election law is unconstitutional and call a halt to further recounting.

U.S. District Judge Donald M. Middlebrooks, a Clinton appointee, has scheduled a hearing for this morning on Bush's request for an injunction to stop 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 talk show circuit yesterday, while officials in one Florida county, Volusia, began the tedious job of recounting 185,000 ballots by hand.

Gore's campaign drew encouragement from a preliminary hand count in Palm Beach County, where officials decided about 2 a.m. yesterday to manually count all of the votes cast in Tuesday's election - some 470,000 ballots. Gore narrowed Bush's already-slender edge in a test examination of ballots from four Palm Beach precincts, representing about 1 percent of the vote cast, over the weekend.

Statewide, Bush's advantage over Gore has shrunk to 288 votes, according to the latest Associated Press count. The official total by the office of Florida's secretary of state shows Bush 960 votes ahead but does not include returns 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 answer might be found to the pivotal question of which presidential candidate carried the Sunshine State, though it could well take longer.

Neither side is ruling out the possibility that all 6 million ballots in Florida 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 to call him the winner in the popular vote, though it will take several weeks before all ballots are counted.

The vice president is also clinging to a 255-246 electoral vote advantage over 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 Gore leads 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 count all the votes by hand in the state's largest counties.

In Miami-Dade, officials plan to decide tomorrow whether to grant the Democrats' request for a recount of more than 620,000 ballots. Volusia County will go to state court today to request an order allowing the count there to continue beyond the deadline of 5 p.m. tomorrow, when all counties are supposed to certify their results.

However, officials in Volusia, which includes Daytona Beach, expressed optimism last night that their hand count might be finished as early as this evening. Manual recounts were completed yesterday in almost half the county's 172 precincts.

Around the country, senior figures from both parties continued to stress the need for closure and urged Bush and Gore to put the national interest ahead of their own ambitions.

Former Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, a Democrat, issued a statement urging both men to act "in a manner worthy of the office they seek."

Nunn said Gore "should make it clear that he would concede the victory to Governor Bush if he loses Florida after the more scrupulous recount and the counting of the absentee ballots."

Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said "litigation is not the answer" and that both sides should agree to let Florida's results decide the election.

The Bush campaign is preparing to request recounts in states where Gore leads or appears to have won by a narrow margin, including Wisconsin, Iowa and Oregon.

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 the Gore campaign would agree to abandon its request for hand recounts and abide by the official total in the state when the overseas absentee ballots are counted.

Overseas ballots have favored the Republican candidate in the past three presidential elections in Florida, and Bush aides say they expect them to favor him this week.

"This would not be tied up in the courts for another hour if the Gore campaign would simply agree to abide by the results of a proper count of the overseas absentee ballots," said Baker, who rejected the idea that the Bush camp is fearful of what a hand count might bring.

Bush campaign officials argued that their position against manual recounts was strengthened by confusion in Palm Beach County on Saturday over which ballots to count and which to throw out.

They also pointed to what they termed a significant difference between a Texas law, signed by Governor Bush in 1997, which calls hand counts superior to machine counts, and the process in Florida. The Texas law prescribes standards to guide officials in manual tallies, while Florida leaves those decisions to the discretion of individual election commissions in each county.

Baker said the "subjective" process in Florida "opens up tremendous possibilities for human error" and "for mischief." He acknowledged, however, that he had no evidence that there has been any wrongdoing in the initial hand counts, which are being closely watched by representatives of both campaigns.

The Gore camp, while increasingly optimistic that its hand-recount strategy would deliver the presidency to their man, has refused to rule out future legal action.

The Bush campaign was the first to go to court, but that move followed a public threat by the Gore team to back legal challenges to the election by Gore 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 lawyers regard as an illegal ballot in Palm Beach County, which apparently confused many voters.

Individual Democrats in Florida have filed a number of lawsuits in state courts over that disputed Palm Beach ballot, demanding a revote in the county.

The Bush campaign says the Democrats will keep recounting until they finally get an outcome that favors Gore.

Bush is asking Judge Middlebrooks to assume responsibility over the lawsuits that have been filed in state courts, apparently on the theory that there would be less chance that he would take the drastic step of ordering a new election than would a state judge.

The Bush campaign has not requested a hand recount, saying that it opposes them "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 a hand recount in only "one or two" counties.

The Bush campaign is not ruling out a request for a manual recount statewide. "When you do it in just selected counties, you don't treat all voters the same way," Baker said.

It would be up to Bush and his running mate, Dick Cheney, to decide whether to demand recounts in other states, if the court fails to halt the latest Florida recount, Baker said.

Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Gore's chief surrogate in Florida, disputed the Bush side's claim that machines can count more reliably than humans.

"Machine counts are very often inaccurate, just as ... your own credit card bills are sometimes inaccurate," Christopher said. Because the results in Florida will determine the next president, "there's a very great justification for 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 that yet.

The longest vote count in a modern presidential election will soon enter its second week without a winner. But the Gore adviser said the public needs to be patient for a while longer.

Christopher noted that only five of the 75 days between the election and the presidential inauguration have passed, and predicted that the final result would be known in "a matter of days - not weeks, not months."

While their spokesmen jousted over the airwaves, the candidates kept largely out of the spotlight.

Bush remained at his rural Texas ranch, where he continued to make transition 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 with campaign aides.

The vice president has tried to project an air of relaxed indifference over the uncertain outcome of the election. On Saturday night, he and his running mate, Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, and their wives, went to see the new movie "Men of Honor" at a northwest Washington shopping mall.

Cuba Gooding Jr. and Robert DeNiro star in the film about the uphill struggle of a black enlistee in the Navy. Billboards promoting the movie carry the slogan: "History is made by those who break the rules."

While Gore and company were at the theater, officials in Palm Beach County were 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 the county's three-member canvassing board, to call for a manual recount of all the county's nearly 470,000 ballots.

She argued that the results changed enough to indicate that a countywide count would yield enough votes to give a Florida victory to Gore. Her action was strenuously opposed by board member Charles Burton, a circuit judge and Democrat 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 the count that started Saturday and carried into yesterday morning.

"It has been utter pandemonium today," protested Mark Wallace, an attorney for 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 not to put the country through this."

The manual countywide tabulation was approved 2-1 by the board, with Roberts and Theresa LePore, the elections supervisor who designed the "butterfly ballot," voting in favor. Burton wanted the board to seek an opinion from Florida's secretary of state before moving ahead.

"I think we need to move cautiously," Burton said afterward. "What you're asking three people to do is subjectively determine what a vote is. As human beings, we can do the best job we can do."

The hand recount of more than 4,600 ballots cast by 1 percent of the voters in 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 of ballots punched for more than one presidential candidate, finding that two-thirds of 156 "overvoted" ballots included a vote for Gore and one for the candidate above or below him on the ballot.

Those numbers appeared to lend credence to the Democrats' argument that the butterfly ballot confused voters, many of them elderly, and led many to vote mistakenly for Reform Party candidate Patrick J. Buchanan. Democratic Party officials say voters may have realized the mistake and tried to correct it, thereby disqualifying their ballots by voting twice. The voters could have requested new ballots, but many were unaware that they could, Democrats have argued.

The three-member canvassing board will meet again this morning to determine how to proceed with the recount. If the weekend count is any indication, a hand count of every Palm Beach County precinct could drag on for weeks.

"Multiply tonight by 99," Burton said after the marathon session Saturday and early yesterday.

Sun staff writer Stephanie Desmon contributed to this article.