It May Have Tipped Gore's Way

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Al Gore arrives to read a statement to the media

Now it's Al Gore who has the law — and time — on his side.

The vice-president's scheduled 4 p.m. press conference Friday wasn't going to be a happy one. He was going to have to come out and make his plea to the American people for more time. For more patience. And, most of all, for them to ignore Florida secretary of state Katherine Harris when she stood up on Saturday at noon and declared George W. Bush to be, in the eyes of the state of Florida, the President-elect of the United States.

Not any more. Gore's statement at 4:40 was short and sweet because the Florida Supreme Court had done all the talking for him. Just moments before, it had put Harris' certification on ice, pending further review of the Gore team's case for including hand counts in the official tally. It hadn't said yes, it hadn't said no.

But it had made vice president's public relations job infinitely easier.

"I want to be clear — neither Governor Bush, nor the Florida secretary of state, nor I, will be the arbiter of this election," Gore said. "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." Throw in the usual undeniable boilerplate — "The American people want to make certain that every vote counts and that every vote is counted fairly and accurately" — and it practically sells itself.

At 11 a.m., the Bush team was coasting. Bush surrogate-in-chief James Baker, needing no more words than Gore would later, got to lean on the arm of Judge Terry Lewis and declare that "the rule of law has prevailed." Karen Hughes emerged later to discuss Thanksgiving plans and demur to expectant reporters that any plans for a Bush celebration this weekend were "premature" — but only because Harris hadn't called it yet.

They knew that with the hand-count inclusion issue before Democratic-appointed Florida high court that had already given pesky Palm Beach County explicit permission to begin one, it wasn't over legally, not by a long shot. But they held out hope that the Supremes would kick this one back to Judge Lewis, or maybe even uphold his decision.

And they knew that on Saturday, Harris would be offering the nation a number — and a conclusion. The Gore camp's case for patience from the populace would get that much tougher, and it was even possible to imagine the door getting slammed shut in the public mind by the Sunday talk-show chorus.

By the evening, though, there was nothing for the Bush camp to say that was worth shuttling the candidate up from the ranch. Just after 7 p.m., James Baker could only remind reporters that the 11th Circuit Court had invited them back to Atlanta to talk hand counts when Florida was finished with them, and the Supreme Court had merely made a holding action. "We remain confident," he said, that the courts would eventually fall in behind Harris.

Now the door to next week is wide open. While polls are starting to show public impatience, they also say a majority is still behind hand counts in principle. Certainly Gore's case for including them is a lot easier to make with the highest court in Florida backing him up (so far). And meanwhile the counts go on, in Broward County and Palm Beach County, with the numbers slowly trickling into Gore's column. Miami-Dade, under heavy Democratic pressure, on Friday decided to join them and hold what could be a million ballots up to the light.

If the statistically probable comes to pass, on Saturday at noon, Al Gore will have a number to shoot for. It will be Bush winning Florida by 300, 400, 800 votes — but with only the "unofficial" imprimatur of the Associated Press, it's not likely to be indelible in the public mind.

If the statistically probable comes to pass, and the hand counts go on over Bush's now next-stop-SCOTUS objections, some day next week Palm Beach, or Broward, or Miami-Dade will find enough lost votes to put Al Gore over the top in Florida, and over the top in the election.

And then George W. Bush is going to have a very hard time telling people he won because the machines said so.