The Disunited States of America

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The Independent US

With the US presidential election result still in doubt, all the pent-up tensions of the past two days burst into the open last night, as the two camps threw restraint to the wind and embarked on an open battle for power.

With the US presidential election result still in doubt, all the pent-up tensions of the past two days burst into the open last night, as the two camps threw restraint to the wind and embarked on an open battle for power.

Vice-President Al Gore's campaign team threatened to back court action in Florida to contest the result, while inTexas, George W Bush's team accused the Gore camp of politicising the electoral process "at the expense of our democracy". Both camps brought in respected elder statesmen - the former president Jimmy Carter for the Democrats and the former ambassador Robert Strauss for the Republicans - to call for patience and restraint. But the gloves were off.

The slanging match by proxy plunged the United States into a political crisis of the first order, raising questions about the soundness of some of its most fundamental institutions and leaving arrangements for the presidential transition in limbo. Continuing uncertainty affected Wall Street for the first time; the markets fell sharply at midday, recouping some of their losses before the close.

Hopes that the state-wide recount in Florida would resolve the dispute faded last night as the final result was delayed and the authorities decided anyway not to certify the result pending expected court challenges. With all but three counties reporting, the recount showed Mr Bush with only one-fifth of his original 1,700 majority but still in the lead.

The focus was on Palm Beach County, where allegations of electoral irregularities and errors were concentrated. Last night, local authorities acceded to the Gore campaign's request for a "hand" count in disputed precincts; the count will be conducted tomorrow, with the result announced on Monday.

The hand count was in response to an extraordinary public intervention by Mr Gore's campaign manager, Bill Daley, who threw down the gauntlet. "We are taking steps," he said gravely, "to make sure that the people's choice becomes our president." Mr Daley's words amounted to a direct appeal to the American people, past all legal and constitutional niceties. It also contained an implicit challenge to the current system, where the vote of the 538-member electoral college, and not the popular vote, decides the victor.

The current count nationwide has Mr Gore leading in the popular vote, while Mr Bush - if he is declared the winner in Florida - would have the majority in the electoral college. Not since 1888 has the popular vote and the electoral college calculation split.

Standing silently behind Mr Daley, but in the centre of the picture as he spoke, was Warren Christopher, a past secretary of state, respected lawyer and sage, who is Mr Gore's representative at the Floridarecount. In the cooler atmosphere of the previous day, Mr Christopher had dismissed talk of any constitutional crisis. There were no such denials yesterday.

The two candidates remained out of view. But behind the scenes passions ran high. In Austin, Texas, the Bush camp made as if it was business as usual and their man had won - floating names of potential cabinet members. Mr Bush's spokeswoman, Karen Hughes, had earlier shot a warning across Mr Gore's bows, expressing confidence that the Florida recount would give Mr Bush victory and saying acidly: "We expect that... the Vice-President will respect the will of the people of Florida."

Addressing himself directly to the Bush team and its plans for appointments, Mr Daley said: "I believe that their actions to presumptively crown themselves the victors, to try to put in place a transition, run the risk of dividing the American people and creating a sense of confusion."

The protests in Palm Beach County registered yesterday were threefold: intimidation on racial grounds, misplaced ballot boxes, and the one that was specific to Palm Beach County, the design of the ballot paper. Electoral officers said they had fielded hundreds of complaints from voters who said they cast their ballot for the wrong candidate by mistake.

The alleged beneficiary of those miscast ballots was the right-wing Reform Party candidate, Pat Buchanan. Even he acknowledged that Mr Gore probably deserved most of his 3,000 votes.

In addition, as many as 19,000 ballots were registered as spoilt in Palm Beach County, many of them because voters had apparently tried to correct their mistaken vote for Mr Buchanan. With court hearings likely, speculation was rampant about what could be done: a new local ballot, an "adjustment" of the result, removing Florida from the national count.

The Attorney General, Janet Reno pledged to review the complaints. But she drew a sharp distinction between legality and politics.