Play-By-Play on Deadline Friday

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The U.S. Supreme Court: Could the Florida fiasco end here?

4:40 p.m. Friday ET

Al Gore finally came out around 4:30, and he kept it short — the Florida Supreme Court did all the talking for him. Gore's statement, in full:

"As I have said all along, we need to get a fair and accurate count to resolve this election. The American people want to make certain that every vote counts and that every vote is counted fairly and accurately. The citizens of Florida surely want the candidate who received the most votes in Florida to be determined the winner of that state. That is why I am very pleased the hand counts are continuing. They are proceeding despite efforts to obstruct them and that is why the decision just announced by the Florida Supreme Court preventing the Florida Secretary of State from certifying the election results tomorrow is so important.

"I want to be clear -- neither Governor Bush, nor the Florida Secretary of State, nor I, will be the arbiter of this election. This election is a matter that must be decided by the will of the people as expressed under the rule of law, law which has meaning as determined in Florida now by the Florida Supreme Court. Thank you."

And he even kept himself from grinning.

4:13 p.m. Friday ET

While we were waiting for Al Gore to come out and vow to fight on through Saturday's certification, Saturday's certification just went out the window.

"In order to maintain the status quo," wrote all seven Florida Supreme Court Justices, "the court on its own motion enjoins the respondent" — that would be one Katherine Harris — "from certifying the results of the Florida election... until the further order of this court."

Translation: Whoa. The court didn't make a final decision, just planned a hearing for Monday at 2:00 — these guys can't work weekends at a time like this? — but the upshot is that Harris can count the absentee ballots Saturday morning if she wants. She or AP will tell us who won. But Harris can't declare the winner.

From the Gore camp, a very big sigh. Six hours after Judge Terry Lewis ruled against them and four hours after David Boies and Warren Christopher had to loudly brush off the expected Bush victory — "nothing's going on this weekend except maybe some premature partying" — Democrats no longer have to worry about an officially certified Bush win whetting the public appetite for an end to it all.

We're still waiting for Al Gore, who undoubtedly held up his statement when he heard the court clearing its throat. And now it's going to be hard to write with all the celebrating.

2:40 p.m. Friday ET

In a completely useless press conference, Bush spokesperson Karen Hughes said her candidate would be in Austin for Thanksgiving, and that he had not yet considered the possibility of a victory party if Harris declares him the winner on Saturday.

1:30 p.m. Friday ET

It took two hours for head Gore surogates Warren Christopher and David Boies to declare the expected Friday: The war is still on, and headed to the Florida Supreme Court. "We continue to believe that Secretary Harris was wrong to certify the election results before the recounts were completed," Christopher said. "I would hope George Bush does not attach finality to tomorrow's result."

Or, as Boies put it, "Nothing's going on this weekend except maybe some premature partying."

With the Gore legal team already having landed their appeal of Judge Terry Lewis' decision in front of the highest court in the state, it was up to Christopher and Boies to explain their case — and ask the American people for a few more days of wrangling.

"We think this matter is important enough to be decided by the Florida Supreme Court," Boies said, adding that, "if it's a matter of waiting two or three days," that would be far preferable to letting Lewis on Friday — and Harris on Saturday — have the final say in the matter. "You don't call the game after the first inning or the second inning, when you get ahead," said Boies. "You wait for the game to be played."

Boies, explaining the law with a lucidity that's reportedly making Al Gore very contented, said that the Democrats, while sticking to their "days not weeks" p.r. reassurance, are in no hurry to finish their case today. In fact, once Harris certifies an official victory for Bush on Saturday, Boies said he'll have an even better case to have that certification overturned. Because in Boies' reading of the Florida law, hand counts are legal if they can "change or place in doubt the outcome of the election," he said. "We think the evidence is pretty clear that the number of votes in question is sufficient" to do that.

So when? Tuesday? Wednesday? December? For Gore, there's not much hurry, because he's betting that if he can try America's patience a little longer, in the end he'll have the ultimate public relations case no matter what the Florida Supremes decide: More votes.

Here's the plan: The Gore camp will wait for Bush's final Saturday margin — it's now at 321, according to the AP — and then fight tooth and nail to keep those hand counts going until they find margin-plus-one votes for Al Gore.

And then let Bush try to stand up and tell the American people he won.

11:15 a.m. ET Friday

James Baker didn't need to mince words this time. "The rule of law has prevailed," Bush's surrogate-in-chief said simply. "We now look forward to the prompt counting and reporting of the overseas absentee ballots... so the election in the state of Florida is not subject to further delays."

Expect to hear from Warren Christopher or Bill Daley within the hour, because while both sides wait for the Florida Supreme Court to uphold or toss out Judge Lewis's decision, the challenge in the meantime is to make the result look good to the public. But while Baker tries to make holding the line sound like the proper course, the Gore team figures to have an ace up its sleeve: the numbers.

While Harris's numbers are still on track to be the official ones, the recount numbers are bound to start hitting the airwaves soon. Unless the Florida Supreme Court halts the recounts out of hand — almost unimaginable a day after they let them proceed — sooner or later Broward or Palm Beach may well deliver the news that the rerecounts have put Al Gore in the lead. And that's when the p.r. war gets really bloody.

10:15 ET Friday Score a very big one for George W. Bush — so far, the midnight deadline still holds. In a ruling relayed at 10:05 a.m. by court employee Terre Cass to a salivating roomful of reporters, Leon County circuit judge Terry Lewis ruled that Florida secretary of state Katherine Harris did right. And this decision gives Al Gore's team little opportunity to celebrate.

"The limited issue before me on this motion is whether the Secretary of State has violated my order of November 14, 2000," Lewis wrote. "The Plaintiffs assert that she has acted arbitrarily in deciding to ignore amended returns from counties conducting manual recounts. I disagree.

"As noted in my previous order, Florida law grants to the Secretary, as the chief elections officer, broad discretionary authority to accept or reject late filed returns. The purpose and intent of my order was to ensure that she in fact properly exercised her discretion rather than automatically reject returns that came in after the statutory deadline.

"On the limited evidence presented it appears that the Secretary has exercised her reasoned judgment to determine what relevant factors and criteria should be considered, applied them to the facts and circumstances pertinent to the individual counties involved and made her decision. My order requires nothing more.

"Accordingly, it is ordered and adjudged that the motion is hereby denied."

In a short written statement, Harris let it be known that she was "pleased with the judge's decision."

Back to the Gore legal team, which was immediately off and running to ask the county's circuit court of appeals to pass their appeal of Lewis's decision directly to the Florida Supreme Court. They have reason to be optimistic. After the Supremes gave Palm Beach County explicit permission to begin a manual count Thursday — perhaps heeding the county's statistical evidence that a hand count could affect the outcome of the election — they may not be inclined to see that hand count go to waste.

Pending a reversal, though, Katherine Harris's — and George W. Bush's — vision of this oh-so-crucial Florida election is still on schedule. The midnight deadline for receipt of overseas absentee ballots still holds, and Harris will announce the certified winner of Florida some time on Saturday.

The state of things: Broward County is still counting, and has reportedly turned up 21 more votes for Gore than for Bush. Palm Beach County, having got its last pat on the back from the Florida Supremes Thursday, has just begun. Miami-Dade County, under heavy pressure from the Democrats, is set Friday to reconsider its decision not to undergo a hand count. And Republican stronghold Collier County, which merely found 25 ballots lying around and wants to slip them into the total, is still wondering whether Harris will have any use for them.

They're not the votes Bush is worried about.