Florida's secretary of state certified George W. Bush the winner over Al Gore Sunday night in the state's near-deadlocked presidential vote -- but court contests left in doubt which man will be the ultimate victor and 43rd president of the United States. Bush said he had won the White House and asked Gore to reconsider his challenges.
"Now that the votes are counted, it is time for the votes to count," Gov. Bush said from the state capitol in Austin, Texas, after Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a campaign supporter, announced that he had captured Florida by an infinitesimal 537-vote margin.
Bush announced that running mate Dick Cheney will direct his transition operations in Washington, and that former Secretary of Transportation Andrew Card will be his White House chief of staff.
So saying, Bush tried to preempt Gore with a campaign to persuade Americans that the election is over with, and that the outcome announced in Florida should be the last word.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, already had declared that it won't be, declaring that he and Gore had no choice but to challenge the Florida certification.
"The election was close," Bush said, "but tonight, after a count, a recount and yet another manual recount, Secretary Cheney and I are honored to have won the state of Florida, which gives us the needed electoral votes to win the election."
Moments after Republican Harris declared Bush the winner of Florida's 25 electoral votes at a ceremony in Tallahassee, Lieberman said she had certified "an incomplete and inaccurate count" and he and Gore would challenge it.
But Bush, in a nationally-televised address from Austin, said "I respectfully ask" that Gore reconsider further contesting the hair-line Florida count.
If the certification of a 537-vote Bush margin stands, the Texas governor would win 271 electoral college votes -- one more than necessary for victory -- to 267 for Gore.
Harris said Bush had 2,912,790 votes and Gore had 2,912,253. That gave Bush the 537-vote lead out of 6 million cast, although Harris rejected partial returns from Palm Beach County. An unofficial AP tally including recounted Palm Beach County votes showed Bush ahead by 357.
The secretary of state's formal declaration, which set off GOP cheers outside the Florida capital and at the state capitol in Austin, Texas:
"Accordingly, on behalf of the state elections canvassing commission and in accordance with the laws of the state of Florida, I hereby declare Governor George W. Bush the winner of Florida's 25 electoral votes."
Lieberman said, "The integrity of our self-government" could be cast into doubt without Democratic steps to get the most complete and accurate count possible. Gore's lawyers were to file their challenge in the courts of Leon County, site of the state capitol at Tallahassee,this morning.
James A. Baker III, the former secretary of state speaking for Bush -- who was making his own statement later Sunday night -- said that count already has been delivered, repeatedly.
He said Bush "won this election" under the rules set by law before Election Day, Nov. 7 -- and under rules changed after the election. Baker denounced Gore's lawyers for what he called an extraordinary resort to the courts -- although Bush has his own set of lawsuits, including the appeal the U.S. Supreme Court, which hears oral arguments on Friday.
"At some point there must be closure." Baker said. "At some point the law must prevail and the lawyers must go home.
"We have reached that point." he said. "... It is time to honor the will of the people."
For all that, Baker said Bush will "absolutely" go ahead with his case in the U.S. Supreme Court, challenging the state supreme court ruling that led to the extended certification deadline and hand recounts of ballots cast by machine in four disputed Democratic-leaning counties.
"We have no assurance that the other side will stop," he said.
Anticipating the certification, Gore was preparing a speech to be delivered on Monday, explaining his case for the continuing challenge.
Gore, who got 337,183 more votes than Bush nationwide on Nov. 7, said he has an obligation to the people who supported him and Lieberman, more than for any Democratic ticket before them. In an interview with The New York Times, he said "every vote that is legally cast must be fairly and accurately counted in accordance with the law ...
"If at the end of this process .... if Governor Bush is successful, I will spare no effort to help him unify the country behind his leadership," Gore said, "and I would expect him to do the same if I am successful."
Sen. Trent Lott, the Republican leader, called on Gore "to end his campaign and concede this election with the honor and dignity the American people expect."
Sen. Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader, said that was not going to happen. "I've talked with most of my colleagues over the last several days and there isn't any interest in conceding anything at this point."
The votes were delivered to Harris in line with a 5 p.m. EST deadline set by the state supreme court, which allowed hand recounts through Sunday, 12 days past the date she had said certification should be final.
Palm Beach County halted its marathon count to file partial results with the state in time for the deadline, and reported a net gain of 180 votes for Gore -- with an unknown number to come post-deadline.
Lieberman protested that hundreds of votes were being discarded by the secretary of state. "How can we teach our children that every vote counts if we are not willing to make a good-faith effort to count every vote?" he asked, speaking from a lectern flanked by two American flags, at a hotel across from the White House that is at stake in the struggle.
David Boies, lead lawyer for Democrat Gore's campaign, said the certification would be challenged today on at least three grounds, probably more, all involving incomplete recounting or votes he said had been tallied for the vice president at some point and later discounted.
Hand recounting of machine-cast ballots in heavily Democratic Broward County, the Fort Lauderdale area, also had narrowed the Bush edge.
Bush led by 930 votes before the recounting in those counties. Absentee ballots from servicemen abroad had added votes to his column.
Harris issued her delayed and contested certification in the Cabinet Room of the state capitol in Tallahassee. With a blue fountain pen, Harris signed the certification documents. Then canvassing commission members Clay Roberts and Bob Crawford signed, too. All three are Bush supporters.
Harris kept her statement formal, citing state laws and announcing the certified count. Then she turned to Crawford, the state agriculture commissioner, sitting on the election panel in place of Gov. Jeb Bush, who stepped aside because the candidate is his brother.
"We've got a razor-thin election for the most important job in the world," he said. "... But I think it's over. It should be over."
"And while we have a winner tonight and we have a loser tonight, it's going to take both of these gentlemen to bring this country together again and I hope we can get on with that work soon."
Florida's Democratic senators, one just elected, argued Gore's case at a news conference in Tallahassee.
"If either candidate were to be declared the victor and electoral votes awarded based on the status today, neither candidate would be legitimate," Sen. Bob Graham said. "What is putting the presidency in jeopardy is the prospect of illegitimacy."
Sen.-elect Bill Nelson said American's don't want "an election that they feel like has been rigged or has not fully been counted.
"We shouldn't have a rush to judgment," he said. "Rather, we should be on a path toward justice."
Democratic congressional leaders said nothing would be settled Sunday or soon. "We're now in a two-week-or-so period in which you have a contest on both sides of this election," said Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, the House minority leader.
"What they're trying to do is overturn every rock, looking for more Gore votes, extend this as long as possible," said Gov. George Pataki of New York, one of the politicians both sides have summoned to Florida to watch the recounting of ballots and talk about it.
The three Palm Beach canvassing board members unsuccessfully sought more time for their recount. All three are Democrats -- and the Gore campaign is going to court to challenge their recounting method, complaining they used too stringent a standard in determining what was a valid vote.
That was one of the issues on which Gore was basing his challenge to certification.
In Broward County, where Gore made more substantial recount gains, the canvassers were less restrictive in judging a voter's intent on punchcard ballots that did not register in voting machines because they were not properly punched, only dented.
Boies told a Tallahassee news conference Gore also will contest certification because of the decision by Miami-Dade County canvassers to drop their recount, and because questioned ballots that had been judged to be for the vice president there and in Nassau County were subsequently taken away from his total.
With the certification challenges, Boies said, "the counting now becomes a matter of judicial interpretation." He said judges or appointed special masters in Leon County, site of the state capitol, would look at ballots from Miami and other contested precincts and decide which candidate should get them.