Legal Round 1 to Gore; More to Come Soon

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Allen Eyestone/Palm Beach Post/Pool/AP

Palm Beach County election officials look over a ballot during a manual recount

Now it's the State of Florida v. itself, and Round 1 goes to Gore. The veep's manual-recount hounds in four Democratic counties are off and running after U.S. District Judge Donald Middlebrooks ruled Monday afternoon that the counts could continue over Bush lawyers' objections. Secretary of State Katherine Harris, however, insists that the Tuesday-at-5 deadline for all recounts to be done is hard and fast. Of course the hand-counters, led by Volusia County (and now, says Warren Christopher, officially assisted by the Gore campaign because the Republican Harris is biased) are suing her for an extension. We're waiting for an answer.

At 4 p.m. Monday, the GOP lawyers in Palm Beach tried to get the eight lawsuits over the Palm Beach ballot consolidated at the state level in Tallahassee, but Monday the judge recused himself and it's a waiting game again. Republicans may appeal the afternoon's hand-recount ruling. But Harris — and the news out of the Volusia/Gore suit that will determine whether that Tuesday deadline holds — may the Bush camp's best hope to keep this thing under control.

The Gore camp is waiting for an edge. If the hand-recount margins come out a few hundred fatter for Gore, and give him the advantage, as they are almost guaranteed to, the veep's team can claim the election by stamping those numbers on the public brain and insisting upon their accuracy. That would force the Bush to either concede, sue for invalidation or call for their own by-hand recount in some Republican counties — making liars out of all the Bush campers who spent the weekend telling everyone how unreliable and vulnerable hand counts are. A quandary indeed.

Harris's problem, and Bush's, is that Florida law allows for requested recounts, and a judge with little appreciation for good-of-the-nation atmospherics could easily conclude that it's common sense for the certification deadline to come and go before those recounts are done. (Volusia County, oddly, expects to have its recount completed in time, but an eager Palm Beach, Dade and others are waiting in the wings.) And then it's our problem too — a hand recount in Palm Beach or Dade could take weeks, and easily run up against that December 18 electoral college coven. And at that point things get much, much weirder.

Bush ran for the presidency as a stop-the-madness candidate, and that campaign continues. It's not a bad public relations angle for this post-election muddle: Name a president-elect quickly for the good of the nation, keep the lawyers out of it, and above all don't look any closer at a Florida election apparatus that is not flattered by inspection.

In that spirit, and with the supposition that the machine recount will go to Bush, George Bush's old secretary of state, James Baker, this weekend put the disarmament offer on the table: Wait until Friday (now it looks like Saturday) when the automatic recount, complete with overseas ballots, is certified by Florida officials. And then stop. Loser drops his guns, and we've got a president-elect. No word back yet.

See, Senator Al Gore started out as an expert on arms control — the kind of guy a deal like this would appeal to. But then again, Senator Al Gore used to win Tennessee. In eight years at Bill Clinton's side, though, Vice President Al Gore has learned that the big political battles are won with lawyers and polls, and that as long as the economy keeps chugging, the nation can forgive pretty much anything.

Especially if you manage to sound like the responsible one. An oddly grinning Gore came out Monday at 4:00 p.m. for a vice-presidential photo-op to call for the process to go on "without any intervening, uh, interference." (Yes, it was Gore, not Bush.) "It's not the contest but our democracy. I would not want to win the presidency by a few votes cast in error, or not counted or whatever, and I don't think Gov. Bush wants that either."

Now Gore's reading that 55 percent of Americans tell CNN/USA Today/Gallup they support a Florida hand recount — in this season, a landslide. The Bush team, in danger of sounding like vote-suppressing meanies, rejoiced at Harris's firm intention to contain the process in Florida, or at least its effect on the national election. But now it's Bush and Harris against Gore and a whole lot of lawsuits. And in court, the Bush team is already 0-1.