White House spotlight returns to Florida; Gore in race against time
The battle for the White House shifts back to Florida on Saturday, as a trial court judge holds a hearing on Al Gore's request to recount 14,000 disputed ballots from Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties.
With legal proceedings going on at both the federal and state levels, Democratic Vice President Al Gore continued to seem at a disadvantage against Republican candidate George W. Bush, who has been certified with a 537-vote lead in Florida, the state that will determine the deadlocked election.
The focus on Friday had been in Washington, as lawyers for the two White House rivals sparred before the federal Supreme Court, but there were no immediate conclusions from those hearings.
The spiraling series of lawsuits came amid speculation that Florida's Republican-dominated legislature could try to break the deadlock by simply appointing the state's 25 electors.
December 12 is the date on which the electoral college votes, chosen on a state-by-state basis in the presidential election on November 7, are supposed to effectively decide who will be the new president.
Gore is mounting a legal challenge to Texas Governor George W. Bush's 537-vote certified victory in the state. Florida's 25 electoral college votes will determine the outcome of the tied contest.
Saturday's new hearing in a cramped second floor courtroom in Leon County, Florida was due to decide whether more than a million ballots from Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties -- including about 15,000 contested ones -- should be recounted by hand.
An additional 654,000 ballots arrived in Tallahassee from Miami-Dade County on Friday, following about 462,000 Palm Beach ballots that arrived Thursday.
If Leon County Circuit Judge Sanders Sauls rules that all the votes will be recounted, it could delay settlement of the case until well after the December 12 deadline, which would deal a new blow to Gore's hopes.
Sauls said he would not order a recount to begin until he determines whether one is warranted at Saturday's hearing.
"There can be no ruling until there is evidence taken," he said.
Gore's only chance of wresting the presidency from his Republican rival is getting a court to allow recounts in the southeastern US state.
In the federal Supreme Court, the issue was Bush's contention that the Florida Supreme Court overstepped its bounds by extending a deadline for certifying the Florida election results and allowing the manual vote recounts sought by Gore.
It was unclear whether a ruling by the nine justices would spell the end of the nearly four-week old legal, political and public relations war between the two candidates.
But even if the nation's highest court were to rule for Bush, Gore would likely press on with his unprecedented legal challenge to Florida's election, an initiative that would be bolstered by a moral victory if the justices were to back him.
In yet another court case related to the election, Democratic lawsuits have urged judges to throw out a total of about 25,000 absentee votes in two other Florida counties, Martin and Seminole.
The suits allege that Republican officials were improperly allowed to alter ballot applications.
If the courts agree, the shift could cost Bush enough votes to anoint Gore the statewide winner. Hearings have been set for December 6.
However all the court battles could be moot if Florida's Republican-held legislature, which overwhelmingly favors Bush, simply appoints the state's grand electors, something they have said is needed if ongoing litigation makes it impossible to meet the December 12 deadline.
State legislators on Thursday took a first step in that process, passing a motion calling for a special session at an as-yet unspecified date -- TALLAHASSEE (AFP)
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