Florida ruling gives Bush the edge

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The Independent US

For the latest news go straight to Tallahassee and read the judgement.

For the latest news go straight to Tallahassee and read the judgement.

George W Bush appeared to edge closer last night to claiming the state of Florida in the disputed US presidential election, and thereafter the White House, after a judge in Tallahassee upheld a state-ordered deadline for all county returns to be offered for certification by last night.

In another day of breathless drama, the campaign of Al Gore also rushed to claim the advantage. They took heart from the small print of the judge's ruling that gave the Florida Secretary of State, Katherine Harris, the right to ignore later returns but not "arbitrarily".

The ruling, handed down by Judge Terry Lewis in a Tallahassee Circuit Court, was a major victory for George W Bush. But with a blizzard of legal actions happening all over the state, no one dared predict that the electoral agony might soon be over.

Warren Christopher, speaking for the Gore campaign, said Ms Harris was now under a moral obligation, at least, to accept late results from manual recounts. "We have the Secretary of State under a strong injunction to consider these and exercise her discretion," he said.

Nonetheless, the Florida Supreme Court was due last night to consider an appeal of Judge Lewis's decision, filed by Volusia County with support of the Gore campaign.

At issue were the efforts by at least three Florida counties - notably Palm Beach County - to undertake manual recounts before the final tally for the state is certified. The Gore camp was relying on those counts to deliver enough new votes to Mr Gore for him to win the state. In his ruling, however, Judge Lewis upheld the determination issued by Ms Harris that every county was obligated under law to certify whatever results they had before the 5pm deadline. That threatened to make all plans for further manual recounts moot.

A troubling scenario therefore came into view. If Palm Beach were to refuse or was unable to honour a 5pm deadline last night, then the entire county might end up vanishing from the Florida count and every voter residing in it would find themselves disenfranchised. Such a situation would provoke a flood of lawsuits and would surely bring angry citizens on to the streets.

Earlier yesterday, James Baker, who is overseeing the wrangling in Florida for Mr Bush, appealed to the Democrats to drop all hand-count efforts and accept whatever results were to emerge from the state-wide electronic recount that was conducted late last week. An informal estimate from that count, conducted by the Associated Press, puts Mr Bush 388 votes ahead.

Still unknown, however, are the results from an unknown number of absentee ballots submitted by Floridians living abroad. They will be counted on Friday and Ms Harris plans to declare a winner in the state thereafter. Historically, foreign voters in the state have tended to lean Republican. Democrats, however, are hoping for help from American Jews living in Israel.

"If the Gore campaign accepts this proposal and drops its litigation, we will dismiss our lawsuits," Mr Baker said at a news conference in Tallahassee. "Otherwise," he said, "when is it going to end? I ask you, when is it going to end?"