Running Out of Time

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After more than a month of counts, recounts, lawsuits, countersuits, demonstrations, handwringing and alarmist rhetoric, the closest presidential election in U.S. history could at last be decided this week. But no one is sure of that or of who would win. The voters are evenly divided, the U.S. Congress is evenly divided and now the nation's judiciary is almost evenly divided. At least the contest has finally reached the court of last resort. Late Friday afternoon the Florida Supreme Court, by a vote of 4 to 3, granted Al Gore the one last recount he wanted. But on the following afternoon the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a George W. Bush appeal and ordered that the recount stop, pending oral arguments in Washington on Monday morning.

Ever since Bush was briefly and mistakenly declared the winner in Florida by television networks on election night, the Texas governor has had the edge. Florida's 25 electoral votes would give either candidate the White House, and Bush has clung to a tiny margin through four complete (if you believe Bush) or incomplete (if you believe Gore) Florida counts. The last official result showed Bush 537 votes ahead, out of more than 6 million cast. And after last week's flurry of legal activity, Bush had the edge in the most important tally of all. The 5 to 4 vote by the U.S. Supreme Court to halt the latest recount strongly suggests that the Justices will vote the same way this week to give the election to Bush.

But Al Gore has been like a punching bag that keeps swinging back no matter how hard you hit it. Pundits have learned the perils of counting Gore out or underestimating the skill of his legal team led by star litigator David Boies and constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe. Even Bush spokesman and former Secretary of State James Baker seems to have tempered his confidence. "One day you're up, one day you're down," said Baker on Saturday.

On Friday Baker and Bush were both up and down. At first, attention was focused on two cases being heard in the Circuit Court of Tallahassee, Florida's besieged state capital, by two judges history buffs loved the reference to early American explorers named Lewis and Clark. They were set to rule on demands by local Democrats (though not the Gore campaign itself) that nearly 25,000 absentee ballots in Seminole and Martin counties should be tossed out. The ballots themselves were not tainted, but applications for the ballots had been initially rejected as incomplete. Local Republican campaign workers had been allowed by Republican election officials to fill in the missing information on the applications, in what Gore lawyers argued was a violation of Florida law. Since Bush racked up a large margin in these absentee votes, throwing them out would give the election to Gore, and many supporters of the Vice President pinned their hopes on these cases as the simplest way their man could come out on top.

But it would not be that easy. Judges Terry Lewis and Nikki Ann Clark both ruled that while there were "irregularities" in the handling of the absentee-ballot applications, the problems were not serious enough to overturn an election and disenfranchise thousands of voters. Key to the decision was the fact that the voters themselves did nothing wrong.

When the Lewis and Clark rulings were announced in early afternoon, a crowd of Bush followers at the Tallahassee courthouse burst into cheers. At the offices of lead Bush attorney Barry Richard, a delivery of Dom Perignon champagne arrived for the inevitable celebration. The Gore side was crestfallen, and the Vice President reportedly began thinking about updating the concession speech he almost gave on election night. MORE>>

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