by Larry Neumeister
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Al Gore hung his presidential hopes on legal proceedings moving at head-spinning speed a day ahead of arguments before the Florida Supreme Court, counting on a court shocker to upset George W. Bush's certified Florida victory.
Lawyers sprinted between courtrooms Wednesday to battle over absentee ballots while Bush and Gore submitted papers to persuade the state Supreme Court to rule their way in a fight over recounts.
Late in the day, Republican legislative leaders called for a special session on Friday to choose a slate of electors. The two leaders said they hoped such a step wouldn't be needed if there's a court resolution of the disputed election. Democrats denounced the action as a mistake of historic proportions, and accused GOP rivals of moving to ensure Bush's election.
"We're protecting Florida's 25 electoral votes and its 6 million voters," said John McKay, the president of the state Senate.
Rep. Lois Frankel, leader of the House Democrats, shot back, "The only thing missing on the proclamation is the postmark from Austin, Texas," a reference to the Texas governor's campaign headquarters.
Gore's team set the stakes in its filing with the high court, writing: "In but a few more days, only the judgment of history will be left to fall upon a system where deliberate obstruction has succeeded in achieving delay -- and where further delays risk succeeding in handing democracy a defeat."
Bush's team countered that the people had spoken on Election Day and that "at no time in our nation's history has a presidential race been decided by an election contest in a court of law."
The stalemate that has loomed since Nov. 7 seemed to be nearing the end of overtime and heading to a sudden-death score, almost surely in the form of a court ruling.
One surprise might come from two parallel cases unfolding before separate judges in the same Tallahassee courthouse.
Democrats were challenging a total of 25,000 absentee ballots in Seminole and Martin counties, saying Republicans had been unfairly permitted to correct mistakes on ballot applications, in violation of state law.
Either suit had the potential to switch the lead in Florida's vote count from Bush to Gore, since Bush won the absentee ballots by a 2-to-1 margin.
Bush, leading by a few hundred votes ever since the Nov. 7 election and talking more like a president-elect each day, said he had "pretty well made up my mind" on his White House staff.
Meeting in Austin, Texas, with his presumptive national security adviser, Stanford University administrator Condoleezza Rice, Bush warned the nation's enemies not to look for advantage amid political uncertainty.
He said he would do "whatever it takes to send a chilling signal to terrorists that we'll protect our property and our people."
In Washington, congressional leaders held the traditional nail-driving ceremony to kick off construction of the inaugural platform on which someone will be sworn in on Jan. 20. The printing of thousands of programs, invitations and tickets remained on hold.
Virtually everyone was looking toward the courts for a final answer.
One interim ruling finally went Gore's way on Wednesday. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta said Bush and his supporters failed to prove they were irreparably injured by hand recounts that lowered his lead from 930 votes to 537 out of 6 million cast in Florida.
At the same time, the judges made clear they were not ruling on the constitutional points raised by the Texas governor.
In Florida, the legal landscape was less clear. Bush and Gore submitted written legal arguments to the state's highest court in advance of this morning's oral arguments.
"Time is of the essence in this matter," Gore said in his papers. "If the office at issue was not the presidency, ... delaying ballot counting until after all other issues are resolved would not be such irremediable and egregious error."
Gore asked the high court to overturn Leon County Circuit Court Judge N. Sanders Sauls, who refused to order a hand recount of some 14,000 disputed ballots in predominantly Democratic counties.
Sauls rejected every Gore argument on Monday, saying even recounts would not be likely to give a victory to the vice president.
Bush's legal team seized on the judge's reasoning, saying "Yet another recount on any significant scale would likely prove futile."
The Bush team said Sauls' decision was "well-reasoned and careful" and argued that the great public interest would be "frustrated, not furthered, by prolonging these legal proceedings"
At a trial on the Seminole case, a transcript of a deposition with a county elections supervisor was read aloud, showing that never before had she allowed party officials to fill in voter identification numbers on absentee ballot applications. This time, she made the accommodation only for Republicans.
Sandra Goard, the elections supervisor, admitted allowing two Republican operatives to fill in the missing numbers that were required before ballots could be mailed out.
Goard also admitted that Florida law did not give her the authority to allow party officials to fill in the numbers.
Bush won the absentee ballots in Seminole County by some 4,797 votes. In Martin County, he beat Gore by 2,915 absentee votes. The Martin County case went to trial Wednesday evening.
First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams said he thought it would be unlikely that Leon County Circuit Judge Nikki Clark would toss out a sufficient number of votes to give Gore a victory.
"If Judge Clark were to throw out enough votes to put Gore ahead, there would be a lot of stunned people on the streets as well as in the camps of both candidates," he said.