Recount gives fresh hope to Gore

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A hand recount of one per cent of the ballot papers in Palm Beach County, Florida, has given Al Gore enough extra votes to suggest he could win the state - and the Presidency - if a complete re-count takes place.

A hand recount of one per cent of the ballot papers in Palm Beach County, Florida, has given Al Gore enough extra votes to suggest he could win the state - and the Presidency - if a complete re-count takes place.

The count, which included an examination of papers rejected by counting machines, added 14 votes to George W Bush's total and 33 to Gore's - a swing of 19.

That could translate to almost 2,000 across the whole county, overwhelming the lead of a few hundred that Bush holds in Florida, with an unknown number of overseas ballots yet to arrive or be counted.

Election officials have ordered a laborious hand recount of the entire county's votes on the strength of the change in the one per cent sample.

Earlier, George W. Bush's Republican Party sent the presidential race into the courts, requesting that a judge block the manual recount of the improbably close vote in Florida. A federal judge set a hearing for Monday in Miami.

"We're all in limbo," Bush said. The Republican suit cited a need to "preserve the integrity, equality, and finality" of the vote.

Former U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III, a Republican, 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."

Vice President Al Gore's Democratic Party 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 U.S. 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 Republican preferences.

According to the latest figures on Tuesday's vote, Gore leads slightly in the popular vote, receiving 49,260,111 ballots, or 48 percent, to Bush's 49,043,820, also about 48 percent. However, according to the U.S. electoral-college system, it is not the popular vote that settles the election.

Each state is assigned electors equal to the number of senators and representatives for that state, adding up to a national total of 538. In each state candidates win, they are expected to get the support of those electors.

The winning number is 270 electoral votes. Gore now has 262, while Bush has 246. Since Florida has 25 electoral votes, the winner of that state captures the presidency. An unofficial tally by The Associated Press in Florida's 67 counties showed Bush leading by just a few hundred votes.

The recount in Palm Beach County finished in the middle of the night. County officials ordered a full recount by hand of the balloting after discovering more errors in a painstaking review of several precincts. Gore supporters claimed a poorly designed ballot may have caused them to vote inadvertently for conservative Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan, who received a tiny fraction of the nation's vote.

Carol Roberts, a county commissioner and a member of the canvassing commission, argued for the labour-intensive manual count of all 531 precincts, saying the errors found thus far "clearly would affect the national vote."

A lawyer for the Republican Party, Mark Wallace, objected. "We vigorously lodge our protest and plead with you not to put the county through that."

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 Florida.

"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."

The winner of Florida' s 25 electoral votes stands to take the oath of office in January 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.

Florida 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 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 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 predict. Newsweek magazine 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 those surveyed oppose waiting beyond the wrap-up of a recount that includes overseas ballots by the end of next week.

President Bill 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."