WASHINGTON -- Despite soothing words about national unity from both Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the two presidential candidates set their legal and political juggernauts firmly on a collision course Wednesday night -- with the survivor to be chosen by the courts and the public.
Each side now has placed virtually all its chips on a single bet. Bush is betting that he can block Florida's largely Democratic southern counties from certifying more votes from manual recounts -- relying on Secretary of State Katherine Harris' refusal to accept any new results.
Gore is wagering that he can find a court to overrule Harris. Meanwhile, he is relying on local authorities in Broward and Palm Beach counties to start their recounts -- whether Harris approves or not -- and thus to put new facts on the ground.
The almost inevitable result is a series of collisions in three different courts: the state Circuit Court of Judge Terry Lewis in Tallahassee, the Florida Supreme Court in the same city and the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.
But even as they take their battle into the courtroom, the two campaigns must be sensitive to the citizens across the entire nation they hope to lead -- which is why the candidates took to the television airwaves in dueling appearances Wednesday evening.
Gore proposed a deal, one largely favorable to his own chances, under which both sides would agree to accept the results of a statewide recount. Bush rejected that idea, but in tones of amiable sorrow more than anger.
In the end, their statements did little more than reaffirm their existing positions.
As a result, senior aides in both camps said they expect the decisive court battles to unroll over the coming week.
"If the (Florida) Supreme Court allows the manual hand counts to continue in Palm Beach and Broward counties, then we can almost get set for a predictable outcome" of Gore winning, former state GOP Chairman Tom Slade said.
"Who knows what the courts are going to say?" a Gore adviser said. "But at this point, Gore is winning. Look at it this way: At the beginning of the day (Wednesday), no one was counting votes. Now one county is counting, and we think two will be counting by the end of" Thursday.
He was referring to the decision Wednesday by Broward County, the state's second most populous county, to recount its 588,000 punch card ballots by hand to see if any votes were missed by tabulating machines. He said the Gore camp believes that Palm Beach County will make a similar decision Thursday.
Gore won Broward with 68 percent of the vote and Palm Beach with 62 percent, and officials expect that any corrections will produce new votes in roughly the same proportions. The most recent official statewide results put Bush ahead of Gore by only 300 votes, a margin that either Broward or Palm Beach County could theoretically erase if a large number of uncounted ballots is found.
Together, the two counties hold more than 17,000 ballots on which machines detected no presidential vote, according to Democratic officials.
The state's 67 counties also must count an unknown number of absentee ballots received after election day from citizens living overseas; those are expected to favor Bush.
Gore appeared to win a key round in the battle early Wednesday when the state Supreme Court allowed the manual recounts to proceed. But advisors on both sides warned that the ruling was based only on technical grounds and was not a final decision of the issue.
The two camps may clash simultaneously in court Thursday. A Gore adviser said the Democrats will appeal Harris' decision to Lewis, who on Monday had advised the secretary of state that she could decide what results to certify as long as her judgment was not arbitrary.
They also will meet in the Supreme Court, which is considering a request from the counties to issue an advisory opinion on whether they can go ahead with the recounts or not.
And they will meet in the 11th Circuit Court, where the Bush campaign has asked for an order blocking any recounts on the grounds that they are unfair to residents of other counties.
One element of Gore's strategy became clearer as Wednesday's combat raged: The Democrats desperately want Broward and Palm Beach counties to start counting.
"Once they're counting, they can tell the American public how close they are to finishing, and that will put pressure on Harris to back off," a Gore adviser said. "They can put a big United Way thermometer up outside the courthouse and show how close they're getting to the target."
That scenario, a Republican political adviser said, could lead to "the worst of all possible worlds" for Bush: a recount in two of the state's most heavily Democratic counties.
That's why Gore was willing to offer to give up further legal appeals if the recounts are allowed; that's a recipe for a Democratic victory. "They're desperate to avoid counting the votes because we have the votes," a Democrat close to Gore said.
Gore also offered Bush a recount in all 67 of Florida's counties, for two reasons: First, he believes he would still win under those circumstances. Second, senior Democrats say, the vice president is worried that a victory based on a partial recount might look tainted to many voters.
Bush turned down both offers.
Gore aides, predictably, claimed that by making the offers, the vice president had seized the moral high ground.
One result of the escalating conflict has troubled at least some combatants on both sides: No matter how it ends, the loser and his followers are likely to consider the result illegitimate -- and carry that resentment into the nation's politics over the next four years.
If Harris succeeds in blocking the certification of any further recounts, Democrats are sure to feel that Republicans stole the election by preventing the tabulation of votes intended for Gore in Broward and Palm Beach counties.
But if the recounts are allowed to proceed, Republicans are sure to feel aggrieved -- because Broward and Palm Beach are among only four of the state's 67 counties that have requested authority to amend their results based on manual recounts. If the manual counts in those two heavily Democratic counties put Gore in the lead, Republicans will just as vehemently believe that he stole the election.
The possibility that those two counties would be the only ones to hold recounts this week has always been the greatest risk in the Republican strategy.
While some smaller counties also have conducted hand recounts, the Bush campaign chose not to request them in the counties that he won -- even though those counties also contained significant numbers of ballots without a recorded presidential vote. A statewide survey by the Orlando Sentinel concluded that 85,366 ballots were left without a presidential preference or were double-punched in counties that Bush won -- nearly as many as the 94,389 in the counties that Gore won.
Rather than seeking recounts in their counties, the Bush campaign is seeking in both federal and state court to block any manual recounts at all.
That was a controversial decision even inside the Republican camp. Slade said he urged the state party last week to protect its interests by requesting recounts in Republican-leaning counties. Other well-placed Republicans also made similar requests, sources say.
But fearing that it would weaken its legal case by asking for manual recounts while seeking to bar them, the Bush campaign rejected that argument and let the deadlines pass. One senior Republican says there has been relatively little second-guessing of that strategy in GOP circles; Bush held firm to his position in a brief statement Wednesday night.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.