TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Seeking to force an end to the United States' week-old election stalemate, Secretary of State Katherine Harris froze George W. Bush's lead in Florida on Wednesday night and said she would declare a winner Saturday after the final overseas ballots are tallied.
At a news conference that capped a whiplashing day of developments, Harris said she considered -- and rejected -- appeals from four counties that sought to continue hand counting ballots into the weekend.
"It is my duty under Florida law to exercise my discretion and deny the requested amendments," said Harris, a Republican and strong backer of Bush, the GOP presidential candidate.
The campaign of Vice President Al Gore planned to go to court Thursday morning to seek a reversal of Harris' decision. "There's an attempt to bring the curtain down that I think is really unfortunate," said Bill Daley, chairman of Gore's campaign.
Harris acted hours after the Florida Supreme Court refused to stop the hand counting of ballots. Even before the ruling, workers in the Democratic stronghold of Broward County began a manual tally of nearly 600,000 ballots.
A federal appeals court in Atlanta, meanwhile, agreed to hear Bush's lawsuit to block hand counting and preserve his 300-vote Florida lead pending the tabulation of overseas absentee ballots due Friday. A procedural hearing in that case is scheduled for Thursday morning.
Even as Gore attempted to settle the impasse with an overture to Bush -- which the Texas governor spurned -- Harris thrust herself back to the center of the election controversy. Her decision effectively drew a line at Florida's Tuesday cutoff for counties to report their results, although she acknowledged her word may not be the last. "The schedule, of course, is subject to judicial intervention," she said.
Specifically, Harris denied requests from four of the state's 67 counties to file amended returns, most of them after conducting hand counts the Gore team hoped would boost the vice president's vote total.
She said that after a six-hour analysis of her options and her discretionary authority, she decided none of the four counties had proven that an extension was warranted. Harris said she would certify the election results on Saturday, after tallying the last overseas ballots.
Typically, these votes have mostly been cast by U.S. military personnel who lean Republican.
Ignoring the Tuesday deadline, officials in Broward County reversed course earlier Wednesday and voted 2-1 along partisan lines to order a hand recount of the entire county, a Democratic stronghold that Gore operatives hoped would yield the vice president as many as 600 votes. But Gore had picked up only seven votes when the tallying stopped for the night after about 20,000 ballots.
County Judge Robert W. Lee, who had earlier voted against a hand count, joined fellow Democrat Suzanne Gunzburger in favor. Republican Jane C. Carroll was opposed.
The recount of 588,000 ballots in Broward is expected to be finished by Sunday.
In Palm Beach County, election officials put off a hand count of their roughly 460,000 ballots pending a second ruling from the Florida Supreme Court as early as Thursday. Officials there have received conflicting legal advice from Harris and Attorney General Bob Butterworth, a Democrat, over what merits a hand count.
Elsewhere in the county, a judge asked attorneys to present arguments on whether it was legally feasible to hold a new election in Palm Beach County. Some Gore supporters complain that county's so-called "butterfly" ballot caused them to mistakenly vote for the Reform Party's Pat Buchanan.
In Collier County, in southwestern Florida, election officials also asked for an extension of Tuesday's cutoff after uncovering 24 unsealed absentee ballots while sorting empty envelopes during a postelection audit.
In Miami-Dade County, where the canvassing board rejected a full hand recount after a preliminary review, Democrats announced they would appeal that decision at a board hearing Friday.
More than a week after the Nov. 7 election, Gore leads Bush in the national popular vote. But Bush is ahead of Gore in Florida, pending further recounts and the remaining absentee ballots. The Sunshine State will determine the next president, since both candidates need Florida to capture the 270 electoral votes it takes to win the White House.
In a second ruling Wednesday, the Florida Supreme Court allowed a Palm Beach County lawsuit against Harris to go forward -- another victory for Gore.
Even before the Supreme Court ruled, a judge in Palm Beach County upheld the county's manual recounting of ballots.
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