Court slows down presidential tally as Bush lead rises to 927

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Florida's highest court intervened to stop the state's top election official from declaring a winner in the U.S. presidential election as ballots from overseas added to Republican George W. Bush's minuscule lead over Democrat Al Gore.

Florida's highest court intervened to stop the state's top election official from declaring a winner in the U.S. presidential election as ballots from overseas added to Republican George W. Bush's minuscule lead over Democrat Al Gore.

On Friday, Florida secretary of state Katherine Harris was ordered not to declare Bush the state winner as she had planned. Winning Florida likely would have made him the United States' 43rd president.

A federal appeals court also refused Bush's request to block recounts under way in two heavily Democratic counties while a third county - Miami-Dade, the state's largest - reversed field and announced it, too, would begin a recount.

The dual rulings were a major blow to Bush, his hopes of a quick certification dashed as Gore's recount campaign grinds away.

The count of absentee votes from overseas was the final installment in Florida's routine vote-counting process. With returns from 66 of 67 counties, Bush picked up 1,375 votes and Gore 748, giving the Republican a 927-vote statewide lead - up from 300 when the day began.

Cries of foul came from both camps as the overseas ballots were counted. More than a thousand votes were thrown out as officials from both parties analysed registrations, postmarks and other details.

"One of the problems with those ballots is it is so difficult under Florida and federal law that you almost have to be a rocket scientist to comply," said Thomas Spencer, a Miami attorney working for Bush.

In separate manual recount activities - the subject of frantic court activity - Gore picked up a net of 48 votes in Broward County while Bush picked up a net of four votes in the closely watched tally in Palm Beach County.

The winner in Florida will win the White House under the Electoral College system, which disregards the nationwide popular and allots electoral power to each state, roughly according to population.

Gore holds a 200,155-vote lead out of the 103 million ballots cast nationwide and, after winning New Mexico's five electoral votes Friday, has a slender lead in the Electoral College. But both he and Bush need Florida's 25 electoral votes to meet the required 270 to win the presidency.

On a day pitted with emotional highs and lows for both sides, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta rejected Bush's request to halt the recounts. The Bush camp says select hand recounts are unfair and prone to error.

Gore applauded the decision, saying: "The citizens of Florida surely want the candidate who received the most votes in Florida to be determined the winner of that state."

The Bush campaign had been working behind the scenes to set up a possible Bush "victory" statement Saturday, followed by a news conference Sunday.

But those plans were put on hold when the Florida Supreme Court unaninmously told Secretary of State Katherine Harris not to seal the elections results "until further order."

The high court set a hearing Monday on whether to require Harris, a Republican, to accept the recounts she has refused to add to the razor-close Florida totals.

Bush appeared to be taking in stride the latest twists and turns, smiling and giving a thumbs-up Friday in Texas. But his father, former President George Bush, was not enjoying the bumpy ride to the election's finale.

Recalling the tense hours of election night, the elder Bush said, "I can tell you, not wanting to dwell on that night, I have never been through an emotional roller-coaster like that in my life."

Gore's presidential dreams rested with the courts and in the ballot-counting rooms of Florida's Broward and Palm Beach counties, and now Miami-Dade County.

He trailed Bush by 300 votes after the bulk of Florida's votes were certified last Tuesday. That total did not include some 2,500 overseas absentee ballots that had to be delivered to counties by midnight Friday and their totals reported to Harris by noon Saturday.

"I want to be clear neither Governor Bush, nor the Florida secretary of state, nor I will be the arbiter of this election," Gore said shortly after the high court ruling. "This election is a matter that must be decided by the will of the people as expressed under the rule of law."

Conceding to Bush was not a consideration, his advisers said. But the vice president was aware, they said, that the public's patience can run out with little warning.

Former President Jimmy Carter, who has overseen numerous elections in fledgling democracies, regretted the tone of the unresolved election.

"It's very bitter and highly partisan, and it's really a tragedy," he said Friday.