Gore's hopes on the line in court test tomorrow

By Michael Kranish, Globe Staff, 12/6/2000

ALLAHASSEE - With just six days remaining before a crucial deadline, Al Gore's hope of winning Florida's electoral votes appears to depend on receiving a sweeping victory from the state Supreme Court, which yesterday agreed to a hearing tomorrow on the case that may finally decide the presidency.

Gore's hope of reopening the Florida election and reversing the certification of George W. Bush as the winner would require a lightning-quick decision by the court and an order for a narrow recount of perhaps only 13,000 ballots. Bush's lawyers are hoping either for a victory in the Supreme Court or at least an order for a time-consuming recount of more than one million ballots.

In other words, nearly everything must go right for Gore in the next several days for him to win.

Gore remained defiant and upbeat, saying his chances of success remain 50-50. He rebutted suggestions from some observers that his chance of success was severely diminished by Monday's ruling by Leon County Circuit Judge N. Sanders Sauls, who rejected a recount request.

''I don't feel anything other than optimistic,'' the vice president said, speaking to reporters outside the White House. Asked whether he would concede the race if he lost his appeal to the Florida Supreme Court, Gore hedged, saying only that the court's decision will be ''an important point'' and that he didn't want to speculate on the outcome.

But Gore's running mate, Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, did not hedge when asked a similar question on Capitol Hill.

''We have always said that the final arbiter of the contest over the election in Florida would not be any of the candidates for president or vice president, or not even the secretary of state of Florida, but the Florida Supreme Court,'' Lieberman told reporters.

On Capitol Hill, Democratic leaders said they were supportive of one last appeal by Gore. ''There is no erosion of support,'' Senate minority leader Thomas Daschle said after meeting with other senators, including Lieberman, who would give up his seat if the Democrats retain the White House.

Gore has two other potential paths to the presidency, although they have received far less attention. Today, in separate cases before the local Leon County Circuit Court, Democratic voters in Martin and Seminole counties are slated to argue that thousands of absentee ballots were improperly handled and should be thrown out. If Democrats win either of those cases, Bush could lose enough votes to erase his 537-vote margin of victory.

Gore is not a party to either the Seminole or Martin case, mainly because his lawyers feel it would be counterproductive to argue that ballots should be thrown out in one of those counties while saying that every vote should be counted in three others: Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, and Nassau.

But, significantly, Gore said yesterday he was closely watching those cases, which he said have ''more than enough votes to make the difference.'' His campaign did not rule out joining the cases if, as seems likely, they are appealed to the Florida Supreme Court.

The reason for the remaining optimism in the Gore camp is that the Florida Supreme Court has already shown some sympathy for the vice president's legal arguments. Last month, in a comparable situation, the high court overruled a circuit judge and extended the deadline for recounting votes. But the addition of five days to the deadline did not provide enough time for Palm Beach or Miami-Dade counties to conduct a manual recount. Palm Beach finished two hours after the deadline, voiding the recount, while Miami-Dade abandoned its effort because of lack of time.

This time, even if the Supreme Court sides with Gore, there may be even fewer than five days for a recount. In the best-case scenario for Gore, the recounting would begin either late tomorrow or Friday, but could start even later.

But Gore aides said the recount this time could be done in short order, perhaps in as little as a day or two, if the Florida Supreme Court goes along with the campaign's suggestions. The Supreme Court could hire hundreds of people to do the counting, and the activity would not be reviewed by Democratic and Republican observers, which occurred during prior recounts and considerably slowed the process.

Moreover, if Gore's request is fulfilled, the Supreme Court could order a recount of as few as 13,000 ballots in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, which could be quickly accomplished. Those are the ballots in which no presidential vote was detected by either a machine or an initial hand recount. In the third county, Nassau, Gore contends that election officials improperly voided a recount, costing the vice president 51 votes. Gore is asking for the recount to be reinstated in Nassau, with no new counting required.

Bush's lawyers, however, are expected to ask that the Florida Supreme Court count the roughly one million ballots from Miami-Dade and Palm Beach.

''The Sauls ruling gave no comfort to the Gore campaign's idea of somehow parsing out some 13,000 votes and giving them different treatment from other votes in that county,'' said Tucker Eskew, a Bush spokesman.

Another looming question is whether the much-discussed Dec. 12 deadline for selecting representatives to the Electoral College is as solid as many believed. Gore spokesman Doug Hattaway, in a telephone interview, raised the possibility that the recount could go beyond that date.

''Dec. 12 is essentially a date by which the electors have to be certified without being subject to challenge in Congress,'' Hattaway said.

But the Gore campaign, well aware that Republicans control the House, with a 50-50 split in the Senate, is anxious to keep to the Dec. 12 deadline and avoid a challenge that could wind up benefiting Bush. Indeed, Lieberman yesterday said Dec. 12 is the date that is being focused on. Gore, who said two weeks ago that he was ''certain'' the matter would be resolved by Dec. 12, has said more recently that it would be over by mid-December.

Indeed, if the Florida Supreme Court rules favorably for Gore and a limited recount gives the state to the vice president, Bush may want to go beyond Dec. 12 and appeal again to the US Supreme Court.

The potential passing of the deadline also may encourage the Republican-dominated Florida Legislature to use its authority to pick a slate of electors. Legislative leaders had talked about holding a special session as early as today to pick electors, but the Bush victory in circuit court on Monday put a brake on such efforts. The GOP now views a special session as a last resort, preferring that Bush win via the Florida Supreme Court, where six of seven members were appointed by Democratic governors and the seventh was named jointly by Democratic and Republican governors.

Also yesterday, the Florida Supreme Court prepared to answer a ruling from the US Supreme Court, which asked the state court to explain whether it was interpreting the law or rewriting it when it extended the recount deadline. The Florida Supreme Court was expected to say it was interpreting the law, which presumably would satisfy the nation's highest court. Bush had asked the US Supreme Court to disallow the recount that occurred after the state's initial Nov. 14 deadline.

At the same time, another federal court, the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, heard arguments in a similar case, with Bush's lawyers contending that the recounting be disallowed.

Bush, meanwhile, continued to act as if he was the president-elect, receiving a briefing in Austin from the CIA. Bush remained low-key and declined to call on Gore to concede.

''That's a decision the vice president has to make,'' Bush said. ''It's a difficult decision, of course. I can understand what he may be going through.''