WASHINGTON - Vice President Al Gore's campaign, in a maneuver involving some risk, sought yesterday to persuade the Florida Supreme Court to go beyond a few legal issues and bring the election fight to an end in a way that most favors Gore.
Gore's campaign outlined in a 62-page brief its position in three cases the state court will hear tomorrow afternoon. At noon today, Texas Gov. George W. Bush and state election officials are to file their replies.
Gore's legal team asked yesterday not only for more time for manual recounts, but also for a decision that the results must be included in the state's final total.
Such a decision would go beyond the questions the state court appears to have understood it was to decide, that is, whether any manual recounts are legal under state law and whether state election officials had the authority to stop all those recounts as of 5 p.m. last Tuesday.
Answers to those questions would not necessarily bring an end to the legal wrangling in Florida. Another round of legal proceedings might then be needed to move the dispute toward an end.
If the court rules on those narrower issues as Gore's side requested, that might simply clear the way for the counting by hand to go on over the next week or longer.
But the ultimate question would remain: What is to be the fate of the recounted votes once the manual process is over? Up to yesterday, neither Gore nor the counties still manually recounting had asked the state court to take its ruling that far.
The Gore campaign's brief raised the issue at the opening of its legal argument. The question before the court, it said, is whether state election officials "must await the conclusion of manual recounts now under way and include the results of those recounts in the official results" when they declare a winner of the statewide vote for president.
The brief pressed that issue because, according to one Gore legal adviser who asked not to be identified by name, "it would be worthless just to have a decision that the secretary of state must receive those votes" and not be required to include them in the result.
Another member of the Gore team said the campaign has made no decisions about whether to file a challenge later if the state officials do declare Bush the winner. The campaign, he said, "hopes to get this matter resolved" in the state Supreme Court, and to do so now.
While technically the fate of the hand-counted votes may not be directly at issue in the pending cases, one Gore aide said, "I'd be surprised if the court walked up to that door, and then didn't go through it. It has a lot to do with whether the votes cast by voters deserve to be considered" in the outcome.
Even so, the adviser conceded that the state Supreme Court, which has been cautious so far in what it has been willing to do as the dispute unfolded before it, might feel that it is being pushed to reach issues not before it and thus to move more boldly than it is prepared to do at this point.
But, in addition, that aide conceded, the court might see the Gore plea - centered on getting added votes for him counted in three counties - as "stacking the deck" for Gore because the counties doing recounts by hand are so strongly Democratic.
"The court might look for a more balanced result," the aide said, and that might not be as much in Gore's favor. Options might be recounts in areas more favorable to Bush - even though the time for manual recounts elsewhere has expired under state law. Another option might be a recount of the entire state - not necessarily to Gore's disadvantage, but less promising, perhaps, than recounts only in Democratic counties.
The Gore brief went further toward achieving an outcome than three other briefs that were also filed yesterday.
Two of the other briefs advanced arguments that, in fact, might slow down the process of recounting in Florida.
State Attorney General Robert A. Butterworth's brief asked the state Supreme Court to provide new standards to guide county canvassing boards on how to conduct recounts, and then to order the secretary of state to accept recount totals done under those standards. That approach might require recounting of already recounted votes.
Broward County, one of the three still doing manual recounts, also asked the court not only to rule that manual recounting is legal, but also to uphold the specific guideline that county's canvassing board has been following - one not necessarily followed in the other two counties.
Palm Beach County, the one that has been having the most difficulty with its recounting process, asked the court to decide whether the state attorney general or the secretary of state has the authority to decide whether manual recounts are legal.