Ruling today on recount; appeal to top court likely

Cheney says VP should concede; 'Far from over,' Gore aide says

By Susan Milligan, Globe Staff, 12/4/2000

ALLAHASSEE - Lawyers for Al Gore and George W. Bush made their final, crucial arguments last night before a Florida judge who holds much of the fate of the presidential candidates in his hands.

Leon County Circuit Court Judge N. Sanders Sauls, calling it ''a case well tried and argued,'' said he would deliver his decision this morning. Both sides have said they are prepared to appeal to the Florida Supreme Court.

''We know it from essentially every piece of evidence we have that there are ballots the machine cannot read, but from which the voter intent can be discerned from manual review,'' Gore's lead attorney, David Boies, said in a closing statement, urging a recount in several Florida counties.

The number of disputed ballots ''is far more than enough to make a difference in this race,'' which Bush was certified on Nov. 26 as winning by a scant 537 votes, Boies told Sauls.

Bush lawyer Barry Richard said the county canvassing boards alone had the right to decide whether to do a recount, and they should not be expected to conduct ''an expensive, futile act.''

Furthermore, ''we have not one shred of evidence in this case of any problems with any voting machine in any precinct, much less problems of such magnitude to justify'' a court-ordered recount, Richard said.

While the lawyers sparred in court well into the night, surrogates for the candidates made their cases on the airwaves.

''I do think that it's time for (Gore) to concede,'' Bush's running mate, Dick Cheney, said on NBC's ''Meet the Press'' yesterday. ''I think history would regard him in a better light if he were to bring this to a close in the very near future.''

Gore, still forced to make his case in both the courts and the public arena nearly a month after the election, showed no sign of backing down in his effort to win one of the closest races for the presidency in history.

After attending church - where the sermon was named ''A Time for Waiting'' - the vice president was interviewed on CBS's ''60 Minutes'' news program.

''At the end of the day, when all processes have taken place, if George Bush is sworn in as president he'll be my president. He'll be America's president,'' Gore said.

Gore advisor Warren Christopher flatly rejected Cheney's call. ''It's late innings, but it's far from over,'' Christopher said on CBS's ''Face the Nation.''

Both campaigns are waiting for a ruling by the US Supreme Court, which is considering whether the Florida Supreme Court had the authority to set a new, later deadline for county elections officials to determine their ballot counts.

But Gore's chances hang heavily on the ruling from the weekend's trial in Sauls's courtroom.

The judge is to determine when and if about 14,000 ballots in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties should be recounted, and whether Nassau County's vote tabulation should be amended.

Attorneys for the Texas governor sought to prove that ''undervotes,'' ballots which did not register a presidential choice when counted by machine, were in fact nonvotes by citizens who didn't care for either candidate.

But the Gore legal team, in a boost for its case, won an admission from a Bush witness that a hand recount should be conducted in a close election.

The GOP witness, John Ahmann, also conceded he had designed a new stylus to be used in punch-card ballots and unsuccessfully tried to sell it to Miami-Dade County on the grounds that the old stylus was not reliable.

That disclosure delighted the Gore lawyers, who learned of Ahmann's stylus design by unearthing a patent application from the Internet.

In a dramatic moment during an otherwise dry exchange of technical evidence, Gore lawyer Steve Zack cornered Ahmann, a rancher who also has an elections supply firm in California.

''In close elections, a hand recount is advisable, correct?'' Zack asked.

''In very close elections, yes,'' Ahmann agreed.

Gore aides, who see this trial as pivotal, excitedly obtained transcripts of the exchange and distributed them to reporters.

As journalists surrounded a Democratic staff member, a Bush aide stuck her arm into the crush of people, grabbing one of the transcripts.

''Read 'em and weep,'' muttered the Gore aide.

The Gore campaign is worried that if the case drags on too long, there might not be enough time to conduct the recounts by Dec. 12, when Florida's 25 electors must be selected for the Electoral College.

Bush spent yesterday out of public view at his ''Prairie Chapel'' ranch about 90 minutes outside Austin, Texas, but his campaign continued to plod along with transition efforts.

Clay Johnson, his gubernatorial chief of staff and now transition executive director, moved to Washington to begin work out of the campaign's privately funded headquarters in McLean, Va.

Also moving during the weekend was Ari Fleischer, a Bush spokesman who will handle media affairs for the transition.

The campaign also launched a transition Web site,, which includes an online job application and frank warnings about working for a presidential administration.

''The hours are long and the pace intense,'' reads a statement on the application page.

''You should assume that all of the information that you provide during any part of this process is ultimately subject to public disclosure, if requested, per the Freedom of Information Act.''

Gore's court argument is centered on the principle of honoring the intent of the voter. In Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, thousands of ballots were never counted, his team argued, because voters could not sufficiently punch through the paper ballots.

The Bush team yesterday presented its own statistician, Laurentius Marais, who said Gore's contention that the ''undervotes'' would go in the Democrat's favor was ''unreliable and inaccurate and based on a false premise'' that all precincts in a Democratic county would be pro-Gore.

The Gore campaign needs to convince Sauls not only that the votes were not properly counted, but that a recount could turn the election.

Two GOP activists testified that ballots were manhandled when they were recounted in Miami-Dade County. The Bush camp insists that some chads were dislodged by rough handling of ballots and that the ballots were then counted as Gore votes.

But Gore's lawyers, and to a lesser degree, Sauls, questioned whether the two men participated in a ''riot'' at the Miami-Dade election headquarters, perhaps intimidating the canvassing board into stopping its initial hand recount of the ballots.

Republican observer Thomas Spargo denied there was such an effort.

''There was a relatively good-natured socialization that was going on,'' Spargo said.

Globe Staff reporter Glen Johnson contributed to this report from Austin, Texas.