George W. Bush’s point man in Florida argued Tuesday it was “wrong, simply wrong” for Al Gore to claim that thousands of votes have never been counted in the state’s bitterly contested presidential election. The vice president said so anyway, and asked a state court to oversee a hurry-up manual recount of thousands of ballots.
“Seven days, starting tomorrow, for a full and accurate count of all the votes,” the vice president said. “Once we have that full and accurate count of the ballots cast, then we will know who our next president is and our country can move forward.”
Republicans said it was already clear who had won – the Texas governor, meeting with aides in Austin to discuss a transition to the White House.
Bush was certified the winner of Florida’s 25 electoral votes on Sunday by GOP Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a declaration that would give him enough support in the Electoral College to become the nation’s 43rd president. At the heart of the legal contest, and the public sparring between the two campaigns, was a dispute over thousands of ballots in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties on which voting machines failed to read a vote for president.
“Thousands of votes still have not been counted,” Gore told reporters outside the vice president’s mansion.
The legal thicket grew denser three weeks after Election Day:
• Judge N. Saunders Saul, hearing Gore’s formal challenge to the Florida results, set a late afternoon hearing on the vice president’s request for a court-appointed master to manually recount an estimated 13,000 contested ballots from Palm Beach and Miami-Dade.
• The Bush legal team, in written arguments filed with the U.S. Supreme Court, challenged the validity of manual recounts undertaken in four Florida counties at Gore’s request.
• Gore’s own legal brief urged the nine justices to avoid involvement in the controversy. “Principles of federalism counsel strongly against interference by this court,” his lawyers wrote in papers filed in Washington.
• A circuit judge in Seminole County, hearing arguments on a Democratic lawsuit challenging thousands of ballots, ordered the case to proceed.
• And a conservative legal organization, Judicial Watch, was allowed to review some questionable ballots in Palm Beach after threatening to file a lawsuit, raising Gore concerns about the integrity of some of the very ballots that are at the heart of the Democrat’s legal challenge.
Yet another interested party, the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature, was taking a step toward a special session that could result in appointment of its own slate of electors. A special joint committee met for the first time to discuss election issues.
With opinion polls indicating limited public patience for a protracted struggle, Gore and running mate Joseph Lieberman made the point that they hope the contest is settled by Dec. 12, the date for final selection of the state’s electors.
That is “our hope,” Lieberman said as he made the rounds of morning television programs.
It was also the timetable that Gore’s lawyers laid out in court, and that the vice president discussed in public remarks. His side envisioned a court ruling by Saul on Dec. 6, followed by a few days to allow an appeal to the state Supreme Court.
“I understand that this process needs to be completed in a way that is expeditious, as well as fair,” Gore said. “We cannot jeopardize an orderly transition of power to the next administration, nor need we do so.”
Bush spent his day in Texas on Tuesday, meeting with his aides, after serving notice on Monday he wanted the keys to the government’s transition office — a request the Clinton administration rebuffed.
Even so, Andy Card, Bush’s pick to serve as his chief of staff, said the Texas governor might start meeting with prospective Cabinet members “later this week.” He would not discuss names or a timetable. Aides said it was possible that Bush would meet with some candidates at his ranch.
Public opinion polls pointed to an uphill climb for the vice president A CNN-USA Today-Gallup survey, released just before Gore spoke, showed 56 percent of those polled believe the vice president should concede, and 38 percent believed he should not. A Washington Post poll yielded about the same result.
Congressional Democratic leaders have emphatically thrown their support behind Gore’s appeal for patience while his court challenge plays out. One Southern Democrat, Rep. Bud Cramer, D-Ala., issued a statement during the day saying, “The time has come for this to come to a close.”
“It is my hope that both of these men will put the good of the country first,” he added in a statement that mentioned neither Bush nor Gore by name.
Republican running mate Dick Cheney was on the talk show circuit as well as Lieberman, making the case that Bush needed all the time available for his transition, especially given the time spent on recounting votes in Florida.
“It’s time to wrap this up that we’ve had the election, we’ve had the count, we’ve had the recount now we’ve had the certification of George W. Bush as the winner,” Cheney said on NBC’s “Today” show.
He said the Bush team is “rapidly running out of time to put together that new administration.”