by Ron Fournier
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
George W. Bush and Al Gore marshaled their legal forces Sunday for a climactic state Supreme Court showdown, with GOP lawyers saying it would be unjust "to keep the state and the nation on hold" during interminable recounts. Democrats said the truth can't be rushed, as jangled nerves and protests punctuated another painstaking day of south Florida vote counting.
With the long-count presidential election stretching into a third agonizing week, the court strategy of both camps reached critical mass: Republicans hope to stop manual recounts that threaten Bush's 930-vote lead out of 6 million cast in make-or-break Florida; Democratic Gore wants the work to grind away, under rules most favorable to him, though his aides fretted Sunday over how little progress they've made in the slow-moving recounts.
The candidates kept a low profile as their lawyers prepared for a momentous Supreme Court hearing Monday. Each went for a jog and to church.
Calling these "extraordinary times," Bush's lawyers argued in court papers that Republican Secretary of State Katherine Harris has the authority to certify election results without accepting hand counts. They also said allowing the recounts to continue in scattered Democratic-leaning counties would violate the constitutional rights of voters elsewhere.
"The selective manual recounts authorize county boards to engage in arbitrary and unequal counting of votes, and result in the disparate treatment of Florida voters based solely on where within the state they happen to reside," Bush argued.
In a separate brief, Harris tried to distance herself from both Bush and Gore, even as Democrats pointed to her GOP presidential campaigning as a sign of bias. All seven Supreme Court justices were appointed by Democratic governors.
"It is clear, that for the Democrats and the Republicans, the object is to win, and that is understandable," Harris' brief said. "The stakes are very high."
In its paper reply, the Gore team asked the court to set a generous standard for officials to "ascertain the electorate's will" when ballots were punched in the disputed presidential election. They said local election officials in close cases can "determine the voter's intent" by closely examining the ballot.
Twelve days after America voted, the weekend tally of overseas absentee ballots lengthened Bush's tiny 300-vote lead to a still-minuscule 930.
With recounts under way in two Democratic-leaning counties and a third set to begin, Gore had a net gain of 93 votes, which if allowed would cut Bush's lead to 837. On Sunday, both sides objected to county vote-counting procedures.
Gore narrowly won the national popular vote and holds a slight edge over Bush in the all-important Electoral College tally, though neither man can reach the required total of 270 electoral votes without Florida's 25.
The Texas governor spent the day with his family in Austin, Texas. In church, the pastor said, "We continue our prayers for the political process in this country and for those most closely governors by it. May your patience be their patience."
Gore canceled plans to attend a long-scheduled conference in Tennessee, the home state that deserted him for Bush on Election Day. About 100 pro-Bush protesters packed the sidewalks across from his official residence in Washington. "We want Bush!" they shouted.
The identity of America's 43rd president rests with the courts and in the ballot-counting rooms of Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties, where more than 1.5 million ballots were cast, a majority from Democrats.
"It seems to be that they're doing everything they can to stop the recounting of votes because they're slightly ahead and they fear that after the recounting they won't be," said Democratic vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman, who conducted a rare tour of all five major news shows Sunday.
Bush's camp continued its assault on the Gore-backed recounts, depicting the process as riddled with human error and Democratic bias. Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, a GOP ally in Austin to help Bush, said Gore is trying to change ballot-checking rules in south Florida to pad his vote totals.
"To reverse the results of this election, Al Gore supporters are less interested in accuracy and more interested in changing the rules to generate votes they need to win," Racicot said at a campaign news conference.
Gore's advisers were frustrated Sunday by small recount gains, particularly in Palm Beach County, where the election tempest first began when Democratic voters complained of a confusing ballot.
The vice president's team accused the local elections board of imposing a too-strict standard for approving ballots.
In one Palm Beach precinct, Democrats said Gore picked up 11 votes in a sample recount conducted more than a week ago. When the same precinct was counted Saturday, Gore had lost 10 votes from the first tally. The board had actually counted 202 precincts, but only released totals where there were no disputed ballots.
A senior Gore aide speaking on condition of anonymity said the vice president will have a difficult time overtaking Bush unless Palm Beach eases its threshold for accepting ballots.
In Broward County, Gore's count by Sunday evening showed a net gain of 105. About 35 percent of the 609 precincts remain to be counted. Republicans accused the elections board of bowing to political pressure and reversing a decision to throw out ballots that did not have two corners poked out of the "chad" -- the tiny pieces of paper in a punch-card ballot.
"The Gore campaign now wants to lower the bar because it needs more votes," said Ed Pozzuoli, chairman of the county GOP.
Democrats said the ruling allows voters' intentions to be noted. "These chad marks didn't get on the ballot by osmosis," said Democratic attorney Charles Lichtman.
Miami-Dade County began mechanically sorting ballots by machine in preparation for a hand count. Bush's attorneys protested the action, saying it would alter the delicate ballots, but a circuit judge gave the go-ahead.
There was conflict in the overseas count, too, as the GOP charged Democrats with systematically challenging votes cast by members of the armed forces. President Clinton's secretary of defense, Republican William Cohen, weighed in from Saudi Arabia.
"The last thing we want to do is make it harder for those wearing our uniform and serving overseas to be able to cast a ballot," he said.
Lieberman seemed sensitive to the potential controversy, urging Florida officials "to take another look" at discarded military ballots.
Tempers flared as the count dragged on. A fracas broke out late Saturday night in Palm Beach when a counter accidentally put a ballot in the wrong stack.
"You would have thought she'd killed 14 people," County Judge Charles Burton said Sunday. He urged monitors from both political camps to make their points "in a nice way."
Burton said Republicans in particular are too concerned about stray chads, recalling what happened when a scrap of paper fell to the floor. With a chuckle, he quoted a GOP monitor yelling, "There's a chad on the floor. Help!'
"Some of them are going to fall off, and that's fine," Burton said. "I think they were selling packets of 20 on eBay."
Party elders said this election is not a laughing matter.
"If it goes on much longer, the country is going to get really upset about it ... and it will cast serious doubts on the ability of either candidate to serve successfully as president," said former Republican Sen. Howard Baker on CBS's "Face the Nation."
Appearing on the same show, former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn said both sides should accept the Florida Supreme Court decision. "Everybody's trying to litigate themselves out of this," he said.
President Clinton, wrapping up a trip to Vietnam, told CNN the nation doesn't need "all this hand wringing" and added: "Everybody ought to just relax and let the process play out."
And so it did.