Republicans sent the 2000 presidential race into the federal courts Saturday at the same time election officials in one of Florida's 67 counties completed a laborious hand recount sought by Vice President Al Gore. "We're all in limbo," said George W. Bush at the end of a week of political turmoil.
A federal judge set a hearing for Monday in Miami on the Bush campaign's request for a court order blocking the manual recounts from continuing in Florida's improbably close vote.
The Texas governor holds a narrow lead after an unofficial recount, with an unknown number of overseas ballots yet to be counted. The winner of the state stands to gain an electoral college majority and become the nation's 43rd president.
The GOP suit cited a need to "preserve the integrity, equality, and finality" of the vote. Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, said that with a manual recount, "human error, individual subjectivity, and decisions to, quote, 'determine the voters' intent,' close quote, would replace precision machinery in tabulating millions of small marks and fragile hole punches."
Democrats responded forcefully a few hours later, calling for the withdrawal of the suit and expressing confidence they would prevail in court. "The hand count can be completed expeditiously and it should be," said former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, speaking on Gore's behalf. He added that Bush, as governor of Texas, had signed legislation in 1997 specifying that hand recounts be used to settle certain disputed elections a position at odds with the current stated preferences of the GOP high command.
Gore emerged from his residence later Saturday to take in a movie, "Men of Honor," with running mate Joseph Lieberman and their wives.
"We're not giving interviews, we're just on a double date," Gore said when asked by a reporter about the election saga.
In West Palm Beach, Fla., where officials conducted a hand count of four precincts, the recanvass moved haltingly at first. Officials began the day saying a vote would count if they could see light through a punch hole. But then they changed to a different test, based on how thoroughly the voter had punched a hole in the ballot.
In addition to the manual recount sought by the Democrats, county officials were also re-tallying by the total vote count by machine, this time at the request of the Bush campaign. Results were not yet complete.
The unsettled situation in Florida held the candidates and their supporters in suspense and the nation in thrall, and sent the 2000 election on an unpredictable course.
Republican strategists, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that pending the outcome of the legal challenge, they were considering challenging narrow Gore victories in Wisconsin, Oregon or elsewhere, or possibly seeking recounts in additional counties in the Sunshine State.
"All options are open, of course" Bush told reporters at his ranch outside Waco, Texas, running mate Dick Cheney at his side.
Christopher, asked later how far he was willing to go legally, offered a noncommittal response. "We've been considering various other options," he said. "No decision's been reached."
On a day of uncertainty 96 hours after the nation voted, the recount got under way at mid-afternoon in Palm Beach County, where some Gore supports claim a poorly designed ballot may have caused them to vote inadvertently for Pat Buchanan
Ballots were ferried to the government center under police escort. Election workers brought silver metal boxes in from four precincts, broke the seals and removed the ballots. Six teams of three counters and two observers peered closely at the ballots to determine how they were marked.
"Until we get a court order it doesn't mean anything," said Palm Beach County Judge Charles Burton on the recanvass efforts there. "If we get one we'll read it and we will abide by it."
In Volusia county, officials put off a hand recount until Sunday, saying they first needed to complete a review of write-in ballots cast last Tuesday. "The process of counting the write-ins is taking a longer time than expected," said Dave Byron, a county spokesman. "The write-in process is a meticulous process."
In another area, heavily Republican Duval County, election officials disclosed that about 26,000 ballots were disqualified and never counted on Election Day because they were marked for more than one presidential candidate, or none at all.
The winner of Florida' s 25 electoral votes stands to take the oath of office on Jan. 20, 2001 as the nation's 43rd president. An unofficial tally by The Associated Press of an initial recount in Florida's 67 counties showed the Texas governor with a 327-vote lead over the vice president.
State officials said their recount showed Bush leading by 960 votes with 66 counties reporting. The 67th county, Palm Beach, is under a local court order not to certify results after a hearing on Tuesday. The order, handed down by Circuit Judge Kathleen Kroll, is the result of one of eight lawsuits filed by voters who say a faulty ballot design may have caused them to inadvertently vote for Pat Buchanan rather than Gore.
In addition, state officials have until next Friday to tally the ballots mailed from overseas and postmarked by election day.
Both sides had brigades of political aides and lawyers in Florida, ready for any recount or legal skirmishing.
And the pollsters were back at work, four months after the election they worked so hard to plumb. Newsweek released a survey showing that by a margin of 3-1, Americans say it is more important to make sure the vote count in Florida is accurate than to resolve matters as quickly as possible. At the same time, just over half of those surveyed oppose waiting beyond the wrap-up of a recount that includes overseas ballots by the end of next week.
President Clinton sought to calm nerves in his weekly radio address.
"The people have spoken," he said. "The important thing for all of us to remember now is that a process for resolving the discrepancies and challenges to the election is in motion. The rest of us need to be patient and wait for the results."
Officials in Florida said the suit had been filed in Miami and assigned to U.S. District Judge Donald M. Middlebrooks, a Clinton appointee.