- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 9, 2000

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. Florida officials yesterday began recounting ballots to see whether George W. Bush's razor-thin edge will hold, which would make him the first candidate since 1888 to win the White House while losing the popular vote.

But Democrats warned they might fight such an outcome in the courts by citing voter fraud, faulty balloting equipment and what they called a concerted effort by Republicans to conduct the recount in secrecy. Al Gore dispatched a phalanx of high-powered Democrats to this state capital with explicit orders to safeguard the vice president's interests.

The Texas governor sent his own team of GOP heavyweights, although his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, recused himself from overseeing the recount process. The younger Bush said the new tally could be concluded as early as this afternoon or as late as next weekend.

These and other dizzying developments left the presidential race in an unprecedented state of suspended animation that has captivated, perplexed and amused Americans like no other episode in U.S. political history. A nation that is accustomed to ascertaining its president on Election Night is beginning to wonder if it will know the outcome by Thanksgiving.

After recounting 14 of 67 Florida county ballots, Mr. Gore gained 133 votes while Mr. Bush picked up 125 a net gain of eight for the vice president. The recount will continue through the night and today, with release of the newly recounted ballots expected by 5 this afternoon.

The bizarre story line gained new twists and turns yesterday, including:

• The discovery of a box in a Florida school that Democrats said contained missing ballots. The Florida governor later revealed that crayons and other school supplies were in the box, not ballots.

• The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People asked Attorney General Janet Reno to investigate whether four ballot boxes in black precincts went uncounted. The civil rights group also charged that black voters were turned away from some polls, disqualified for no reason and asked to sign in with pencils instead of pens.

• A trio of Floridians filed a lawsuit in state court yesterday, demanding a new election be held in Palm Beach County because confusion over ballots may have prompted would-be Gore supporters to vote instead for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan.

Against this swirling backdrop, Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush made their first public statements on the cliffhanger of an election that has left them in political limbo.

"It's going to be resolved in a quick way," said Mr. Bush, who was joined by running mate Richard B. Cheney in Austin, Texas. "I'm confident that the secretary and I will be president-elect and vice president-elect."

But with his lead over Mr. Gore dwindling to fewer than 1,800 popular votes out of more than 6 million cast in the state, the Texas governor had little choice but to temporarily shelve his plan to "unite the nation."

Meanwhile, Mr. Gore promised to abide by the result of the recount, although he cautioned, "We still do not know the outcome of yesterday's vote."

Mr. Gore called this "an extraordinary moment in our democracy" and made a point of acknowledging that the Constitution awards the presidency to the winner of the Electoral College, not the top vote-getter.

As if to assure voters that he would not argue the merits of a popular-vote victory over an Electoral College win, he added: "We are now, as we have always been from the moment of our founding, a nation built on the rule of law."

His spokesman, Chris Lehane, was less subdued, confidently predicting that the recount would give his boss both the popular and electoral votes in Florida to triumph over Mr. Bush.

But if, as many political observers predict, Mr. Bush ends up winning Florida and Mr. Gore maintains his edge in the national popular vote, the Texas governor would become just the fourth American in history to gain the White House while garnering fewer popular votes than his opponent.

With 99 percent of the nation's precincts counted, Mr. Gore had 48,707,413 votes to Mr. Bush, GOP 48,609,640 a difference of 97,773 votes, which equals just .0967 percent.

Ironically, this is precisely the reverse of what many pundits predicted in the campaign's closing days that Mr. Bush would win the popular vote while Mr. Gore would take the Electoral College. A Bush spokeswoman last night denied that the Texas governor was planning to challenge such an outcome if it had come true.

In Tallahassee, lawyers and spinners for both sides gathered at the secretary of state's office to express their frustration over the uncertainty in Florida, which the TV networks prematurely awarded to both the Gore and Bush camps at various points Tuesday night, only to pull it back into the tossup category both times.

State and national Democrats complained that they were being denied a seat at the table to observe the recount process, which they said was being conducted in secret by the Florida governor and other state Republicans, who were "back-channeling" information to the Texas governor.

But the younger Mr. Bush yesterday told The Washington Times there is no secrecy in the operation, which he said was being overseen by Democrats in many of Florida's counties.

Mr. Gore would have to win nearly all the outstanding absentee votes to push ahead of Mr. Bush. But that scenario is considered unlikely because many of the absentee ballots from overseas are expected to have been cast by service members, a constituency that tends to lean strongly toward Mr. Bush.

In the 1996 election, the majority of the 2,300 overseas ballots went to Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole.

Meanwhile, the thought of Mr. Gore losing the White House was enough to mobilize black activists in roiling controversy yesterday.

"We are not suggesting foul play," NAACP President Kweisi Mfume told a press conference at the organization's national headquarters in Baltimore. "But we are very much concerned that foul play can happen."

The NAACP said black voters were turned away from one Florida polling place because of a shortage of ballots. The civil rights group also said some blacks were given inoperable ballot cards, while others were disqualified by election officials who claimed their race did not match official voting records.

The chaos forced Mr. Bush to temporarily mothball plans to begin his presidential transition. The Texas governor is widely expected to quickly appoint retired Gen. Colin Powell as his secretary of state.

"Something about this recount does not pass the smell test," complained the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who led a 10-city Democratic voter registration drive in Florida last month and claimed to black students that a Bush victory could close down historically black Florida A&M; University.

"We need an investigation into voter intimidation," he said, suggesting Haitians were discouraged from voting.

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