by Ron Fournier
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Al Gore raced between TV interviews Wednesday asking, "Will we count all the votes or not?" while his lawyers urgently sought a high court ruling with the answer he wanted. Both Democrat Gore and GOP rival George W. Bush pressed forward with separate blueprints for building a presidency.
"On Jan. 20, a President Bush will be ready to take the reins of the government," said top adviser Andy Card -- awarding his boss a title that Gore still hopes will be his.
Bracing the public for more legal wrangling, the vice president said he was prepared to fight until "the middle of December" and suggested the dispute could drag past the Dec. 12 deadline for appointing state electors -- to six days later when the Electoral College meets.
With the stakes so high, the Republican-dominated Florida Legislature inched closer to securing Bush a backup plan: House Speaker Tom Feeney said Wednesday he is convinced lawmakers need to go into special session as early as next week to name its own slate of presidential electors. And Senate President John McKay agreed that was a "reasonable conclusion."
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the candidate's brother, said he would sign the necessary legislation "if it was the appropriate thing to do."
Still, with the recount case headed to the highest court in the land, Jeb Bush said, "The United States Supreme Court trumps the Legislature." Gore himself told CNN that Florida voters would not stand for "the expression of their will taken away by politicians."
Gore is trying to overturn official results of the decisive Florida election before the public's patience runs out on the 22-day ordeal.
"I certainly believe that I did" win the White House, Gore told NBC.
Needing a quick court victory, Gore authorized his divided legal team to ask the Florida Supreme Court to recount contested ballots or order a lower court to do it, two Democratic legal sources said late Wednesday.
One million ballots were being hauled 400-miles from southern to northern Florida, where the precedent-making case has been thrust upon a folksy circuit judge in Tallahassee. "Pack 'em up and bring 'em up," Judge N. Sanders Sauls said.
Bush planned to meet Thursday with retired Gen. Colin Powell, his still-to-be-announced choice as secretary of state. Powell has told associates that if offered the post he would accept. The Texas governor also was calling GOP congressional leaders, telephoned one conservative Mississippi Democrat himself and assigned his staff to call other Democratic lawmakers as Gore struggled to keep his party in line.
Following Bush's show of confidence, Gore played president-elect at a business meeting with running mate Joseph Lieberman, transition director Roy Neel, Labor Secretary Alexis Herman and Kathleen McGinty, former head of the White House environment office.
McGinty would be a front-runner to head the Environmental Protection Agency under Gore. Herman would be in line for another Cabinet post, White House counselor or perhaps chief of staff, a job that aides expect would first be offered to campaign manager William Daley.
Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a supporter of Republican Bush, has declared him the winner of Florida by 537 votes out of 6 million cast -- handing Gore the steep challenge of nullifying a state's presidential election while convincing the public the race is not over.
And thus, the nation has two presidents-in-waiting posturing to be the 43rd man to assume the mantle.
"It's an amazing story, isn't it?" asked Gore, a former journalist joining legions of others grasping for the words to describe it.
He was dealt a setback Tuesday when Sauls refused to order immediate manual recounts of disputed ballots in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties. The judge scheduled a hearing Saturday on the vice president's petition to include manual recounts in official election totals -- a move that Gore believes would help him overtake Bush.
Democratic lawyers want the votes recounted while the central case is being resolved by Sauls, both to save time and to show voters progress toward overtaking Bush.
Gore's political advisers said privately he needed a court victory in the next 48 hours to prevent a fatal erosion of the public's support. Thus, Gore was forced to appeal Sauls' decision, but his advisers debated for nearly 24 hours about how do it, delaying the actual filing until Thursday.
Some on his political and legal team wanted to ask the court to take over the entire case, throwing Gore's presidential aspirations at the feet of seven justices with Democratic ties. Others thought that was too risky, and urged Gore to take the more cautious approach he eventually approved, according to the officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The debate itself reflected the growing level of concern in Gore's camp that time is running out.
A CBS-New York Times poll shows that a small majority of Americans say they have lost patience with the delay, but half say it is too soon for either candidate to concede. Forty-two percent of those surveyed said Gore should give it up.
In other action:
--Palm Beach County released corrected totals showing that Gore picked up a net gain of 188 votes. Harris didn't accept the numbers because the county didn't complete its recount until two hours after the deadline.
--A Florida judge rejected a conservative law group's bid to keep examining Palm Beach County's presidential ballots, including 3,300 being sought by Gore's legal team.
The Florida court wrangling played out against the anticipation of Friday's hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court took the case after Bush appealed a Florida Supreme Court decision extending a since-expired deadline for hand recounts.
GOP presidential candidate Dick Cheney opened Bush's transition headquarters in suburban Washington and announced its first staff at a news conference.
In the quiet of his Texas ranch, Bush prepared for his meeting with Powell to talk "about how you might put together your national security team for a Bush administration," Cheney said, adding that no Cabinet selections would be announced this week. Bush also was reaching out to Republican lawmakers who narrowly control Congress.
Members of Bush's high command were contacting lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans alike, to discuss Bush's agenda and to tout what they say is his bipartisan approach to governing, senior Bush advisers involved in the talks said Wednesday. Bush himself on Tuesday called Rep. Gene Taylor, a conservative Democrat from Mississippi who has pledged to vote for Bush should the election be tossed to the House.
The officials said Bush's team does not initiate conversations about the election standoff but most of the lawmakers, including many Democrats, ask about Gore's contest. Bush aides reply with their arguments for why Gore's protest must fail, one official said, denying that Republicans are actively trying to persuade Democrats to abandon Gore.
Some conservative Democrats were worried about Gore's political strength. "I've told his team he ought to be doing a better job on the PR side, let the press know what his options are legally and ask the country to be patient," said Rep. Allen Boyd, D-Fla.