The Associated Press
Around the clock ballot recounts nibbled slowly at George W. Bush's ultra-thin margin over Al Gore, drawing the two candidates even closer yesterday in their historically tight race for the White House.
At the same time, Bush lawyers filed new county-level suits to squeeze more votes out of military ballots in time to meet a court-imposed deadline for certifying Florida's presidential election.
In an unofficial Associated Press tally of manual recounts and review of overseas ballots around the state, Bush led by 408 votes early yesterday, a margin of less than 0.01 percent of the 6 million votes cast in the state and less than half his 930-vote lead before the recounts.
Democrats and Republicans were digging in for a continued legal and possibly legislative fight despite the deadline at 5 p.m. EST yesterday. The state's top elections official, Republican Secretary of State Katherine Harris, planned to make her declaration of the results shortly after that hour, unless more lawsuits interfered.
With just hours to go, election officials in Palm Beach County asked Harris to give them until 9 a.m. today to turn in their final results - a request that, if granted, would hold up the certification.
Judge Charles Burton, chairman of the canvass board, said counters, who had worked all night, might be able to finish in time but an extension was being sought out of "an abundance of caution."
Meantime, in Austin, Texas, Bush waved to reporters but said nothing yesterday morning as he entered the Tarrytown United Methodist Church.
Gore attended services with his family at Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Arlington, Va. His only comment to reporters as he entered the church: "Good morning."
From Florida, Gore attorney David Boies said: "We won't have a legal winner tonight because the contest doesn't start until Monday morning," referring to the campaign's plans to protest some county results in state courts.
Republican lawmakers in Florida have considered convening a special session of the GOP-majority Legislature, possibly this week, to intervene on behalf of Bush if necessary.
"We're getting closer and closer to the Florida Legislature to involve themselves," Republican Mike Fasano, the Florida House majority leader, said yesterday on NBC's "Meet the Press."
If the Florida election is certified for Gore, or certified for Bush but with a tangle of legal challenges, the Legislature could try to take the extraordinary step of selecting a slate of electors aligned with Bush. Florida's 25 votes in the Electoral College are key to the presidential election.
"There isn't any interest in conceding anything at this point," U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the Senate's Democratic leader, said on NBC when asked whether Gore should give up if he trails after the certification.
Former GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole said there probably "shouldn't be any big celebration" even though he thought Bush would be certified last night.
"If George Bush is certified the winner at 5 or 6 o'clock tonight, I think the great majority of the American people will say, `Enough is enough. This is four times Governor Bush has been declared the winner. Lets get ready for the presidency on January 20,'" Dole said on ABC's "This Week."
Dole, who lost to Bill Clinton in 1996, said Americans should feel the same way if Gore wins the official vote tally.
The hand recount in Florida's Broward County finished just before midnight Saturday night, cutting deeply into the Republican's lead. Officials in Palm Beach plodded through the night, releasing the results of fewer than 50 precincts.
The two counties employed different standards for assessing ballots.
Broward County cut 567 votes from the Bush lead statewide. Some of that was offset by review of overseas military ballots in several other counties.
In Palm Beach, the three canvass board members, all Democrats, had examined more than 4,000 ballots in dispute because voting machines could not clearly read a presidential choice.
The results released by early yesterday, from 369 of 637 precincts overall, disappointed Democrats who had hoped to pick up hundreds of additional votes for Gore.
Observers on both sides said Gore had gained fewer than 100 votes by early yesterday in Palm Beach, and the only official result had Gore up by 46 votes.
In addition, five counties - Hillsborough, Okaloosa, Orange, Pasco and Polk - faced Republican lawsuits to force review of military ballots rejected for lack of a postmark or other problems.
In a blow to Bush, the Florida Supreme Court ruled last week that the recounts could continue. Gore requested hand counts in hopes of turning up previously uncounted votes in heavily Democratic counties.
But the court set the deadline yesterday for the counties to turn in amended results, and that turned into bad news for Gore. Miami-Dade County, seen as Gore's richest source of potential new votes, said it could not meet the deadline and dropped its recount.
The U.S. Supreme Court is hearing arguments Friday on Bush's case against recounts - meaning the nation may not know its 43rd president until legal wrangling wraps up sometime in December.
Bush, like Gore, was prepared to protest vote counts in the certification, regardless of whether the Democrat edged him out. Under Florida law, the loser can challenge the election after it is certified, and the winner can file a "counter-contest" raising separate complaints.
The vice president's staff was making tentative plans for an address by Gore today, a senior adviser said on condition of anonymity. The speech would give Gore a chance to explain why he was fighting the certification and set the stage for the historic clash before the Supreme Court.