Florida spotlight turns to steely Bush 'crony'

The Rulings
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Katherine Harris, the steely Republican Secretary of State for Florida, remained firmly in the world's spotlight again last night as she set of another deadline for the state's recounts, on which the Presidency hinges.

Katherine Harris, the steely Republican Secretary of State for Florida, remained firmly in the world's spotlight again last night as she set of another deadline for the state's recounts, on which the Presidency hinges.

On Monday, Ms Harris gave the edge to the Bush camp by announcing she would not accept any county vote totals after yesterday's legal deadline of 5pm. Yesterday a Florida judge upheld her ruling, but threw the onus back onto her by saying she had discretion to admit the recounts in four counties - thought likely to favour the Vice-President. Then last night came the latest gambit in this high-stakes game of poker: Ms Harris announced the final certified total for Florida, which gave the state and in theory the presidency to Bush by 300 votes - but then announced that the counties had until 2pm today (7pm GMT) to make their cases for their recounts to be accepted. She still has discretion to reject their claims.

The move will ensure that Ms Harris, 43, a citrus heiress who is a friend of the Florida Governor, Jeb Bush, brother of George W Bush, will have to continue to defend her herself against Democratic charges of bias and says she only implements procedures. Gore aides have variously described her as a "Soviet commissar" and a Bush "crony".

She may be steely, but Ms Harris would surely not have wanted the presidential race thrown in her lap. It is widely thought she has aspirations for higher office - either for the state governorship or to serve as an overseas ambassador - but those hopes rest on the fortunes of the Republicans and of Mr Bush, for whomshe campaigned in New Hampshire.

Not that she is unused to controversy. A woman with a wardrobe, she has been criticised for spending more than $100,000 on travelling since taking office as Secretary of State - in effect, Florida's foreign secretary - and for accepting $20,600 in illegal donations from an insurance tycoon in her election campaign two years ago. The wealthiest member of the Florida state government, Ms Harris is heir to a very large citrus and land fortune. She is the grand-daughter of one of the state's most fabled citrus barons, Ben Hill Griffin.

Yesterday's moves introduced further confusion into the process that has moved the election of the 43rd President of the United States from the voting booth to the courtroom. Lawsuits proliferated up and down the state, which holds the key to the presidential election result, faster than grasshoppers in a sub-tropical spring.

An instant census of the Sunshine State would doubtless reveal a curious jump in population over the past seven days. Hundreds of legal professionals, many working for nothing, have descended on courthouses in several cities to join the battle that may end up deciding who finally gets tenancy of the White House.

Court actions were also pending or under way in counties where most of the problems on voting day were originally reported, including Palm Beach and Broward.

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