WASHINGTON -- After another dizzying day of shifting fortunes, Al Gore is back in a familiar position Friday morning -- needing to squeeze more votes out of Palm Beach County if he is to have any realistic hope of overcoming George W. Bush's narrow lead in Florida.
Gore suffered a major disappointment Thursday that was almost immediately salved by encouraging news on another front.
The vice president received a blow when the Florida Supreme Court rejected his request that it order Miami-Dade County to resume the hand count it terminated Wednesday. But only hours later, Democrats were cheered when the Broward County canvassing board found more new Gore votes than expected as it began reviewing 1,800 disputed ballots.
These contradictory currents may carry Gore to a precipice by Sunday. When Broward finishes counting, he is likely to be within range of Bush -- but still behind. That will increase the focus on Palm Beach, where the canvassing board has been applying a relatively stringent standard to judging which ballots contain evidence of voter intent to support Bush or Gore; as a result, a heavily-Democratic county where Gore once expected to gain hundreds of votes through the recount has actually produced a small net advantage for the Texas governor.
Even if Gore can't pass Bush by the time the counties must certify their amended results to Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris Sunday at 5 p.m. (EST), key aides say it is critical for him to significantly narrow the gap if he has hopes of fighting on.
On Thursday, senior legal strategist Ron Klain and other Gore advisers said the vice president would not quit even if he trails on Sunday. But Democrats on Capitol Hill say pressure is likely to increase significantly on Gore to concede if he still trails when the manual recounts are completed.
Gore aides acknowledge that, but believe it will be much easier to justify continuing the fight on other fronts -- through a formal contest to the election under Florida law, for instance -- if he trails by a relatively small number of votes rather than several hundred.
"The whole issue is on a curve," acknowledged one senior Gore adviser.
If Miami-Dade had been compelled to keep counting, it might have helped Gore, but probably not as much as is commonly believed. The county is the state's most populous but its recount was not expected to produce a major net increase in votes for Gore because he enjoyed only a 53 percent to 47 percent advantage over Bush on election day there.
Though the early stages of the hand count in Miami-Dade showed Gore gaining a significant number of votes -- votes that have now been discarded -- both sides believed those numbers came from predominantly Democratic precincts. Overall, Republicans had expected Dade to finish at virtually a wash between the two men; Democrats were hoping to gain between 100 or 200 votes -- a potentially important, but not an immense, number. "The court decision is definitely a blow, but it is not determinative," said one senior Democrat. "Dade was never going to yield huge numbers."
Easing the pain of the state Supreme Court decision on the Miami recount (which Gore advisers said Thursday they were unlikely to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court) were the results in Broward's first day of counting disputed ballots.
Through the first 327 ballots, Gore netted 88 votes -- in addition to the 137 he picked up during the initial stage of the county's recount.
With about 1,800 disputed ballots due to be reassessed, Gore is on pace to net 400 to 500 votes from this stage of the process, local observers say.
In fact, some believe the gains could be even greater after all of Broward's dimpled ballots are counted. Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fla., fears Gore will win a higher percentage of votes as the count continues, which could boost his take to 600 or more votes from Broward.
So far Gore has won about one of every four questionable ballots. Many of those ballots came from suburban precincts not heavily Democratic. The Broward canvassing board is moving through the ballots precinct by precinct, north to south. Still to be counted are ballots from the heavily Jewish retirement communities in South Broward and from black neighborhoods in urban Fort Lauderdale -- two of the strongest Democratic areas in a predominately Democratic county.
"I'm afraid Gore's going to pick up even more votes as this count continues," said Shaw, part of the Republican team that spent Thanksgiving bottled up in a Fort Lauderdale courtroom watching the recount.
The bottom line is that Broward could put Gore within range of overtaking Bush's official, though uncertified, 930 vote lead. (Bush's advantage could grow somewhat if he succeeds in compelling 13 counties his campaign sued Wednesday to count more of the overseas absentee ballots that have broken heavily his way). But at the current pace, no one believes that Broward alone give Gore the lead.
That means the determining factor in the race could be how Palm Beach officials interpret County Judge Jorge Labarga's decision Wednesday encouraging them to measure evidence of "voter intent." So far, Palm Beach officials have applied a restrictive standard to judging ballots with only minimal evidence of voter intent -- such as the fabled "dimples." And in their initial reaction to the judge's decision, they suggested they would not change their approach.
Both sides had expected Palm Beach to be a major source of new votes for Gore; Republicans feared the recount could net Gore 1,000 new votes. But so far, the recount has produced a 14-vote gain for Bush. With Miami-Dade no longer recounting, the stakes could not be higher for Gore's campaign in loosening the standards as Palm Beach judges as many as 10,000 disputed ballots.
The canvassing board will demonstrate how it intends to apply those standards when it resumes counting Friday morning.
If Gore doesn't gain enough in that recount to overcome Bush, he still has several legal options that could affect the race. On Thursday, Klain signaled that Gore would formally contest the result in Miami-Dade; also pending is private litigation that could result in Bush potentially losing nearly 5,000 absentee ballots from Seminole County -- a number surely large enough to change the lead no matter what happens in the manual recounts.
But if Gore still trails on Sunday, political considerations may grow to overshadow the legal calculations. Some of his top political advisers worry that he if he presses on much beyond that point he could compromise his ability to wage a rematch against Bush in 2004.
And though they are sticking with Gore for the present, there is a clear sense among Democrats on Capitol Hill that patience for further court challenges will wear thin after the Florida vote count is announced Sunday (or Monday at 9 a.m., if Harris doesn't open her office Sunday).
"Once you hit 5 (p.m.) Sunday, then the questions are going to start to be asked," said a senior Democratic strategist.
In the meantime, Democrats' willingness to rally around Gore might be increased by the escalation of Republican rhetoric.
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