WASHINGTON - With the U.S. Supreme Court poised to act swiftly on Texas Gov. George W. Bush's plea to let Florida officials declare him the winner of the state's presidential votes, Vice President Al Gore's aides vowed last night to fight rather than concede that result.
The nine justices of the nation's highest court, in their first chance to have a say in the Florida election feud, will have before them this morning all the legal papers they need to act on the Bush appeal. An order from the court may come later today.
Bush's appeal challenges the constitutionality of manual recounts in three Democratic-dominated Florida counties, and it seeks a Supreme Court ruling nullifying the results of those recounts. Such a ruling would mean that all counting had ended as of Saturday and that state officials would be free now to declare as the winner the candidate who was ahead at that point: Bush.
Last night, Gore's campaign strenuously opposed the Bush appeal. Putting strong emphasis on the current Supreme Court majority's deep respect for state's rights, the Gore legal strategists urged the justices not to let Bush "federalize a state law dispute" over the state's 25 electoral votes for president.
"Intervention by this court in this ongoing process," the Gore brief said, "would work a significant intrusion into a matter - the selection of [presidential] electors - that is both fundamental to state sovereignty and constitutionally reserved to the states."
If the justices choose not to intervene, here is what will happen - provided no state court steps in to interrupt the process:
Two Democratic-dominated counties, Broward and Palm Beach, will continue with manual recounting of disputed ballots - a process that the Florida Supreme Court has decreed can continue until Sunday afternoon. It is a process that appears to favor Gore, but might not do so enough to make him the winner.
State officials would announce, Sunday or Monday who won Florida's statewide vote, and with it, the state's 25 electoral votes.
If Bush is declared the winner, Gore's campaign aides said last night, Gore will not concede, but rather will begin on Monday a court challenge to the result reported for the state's largest county, heavily Democratic Miami-Dade County.
Thus, there would be no quick end to the process, even without intervention by the U.S. Supreme Court.
If the court agrees to hear the Bush appeal, the Florida process likely would be prolonged even further. That is because neither side would know, until the justices decided, what vote counts are to be included in Florida's final tally - and, especially, whether any manually recounted votes are to be included.
Gore has been counting heavily upon manual recounts in the three large Democratic-dominated counties to produce enough added votes for him to overcome the 930-vote lead that Bush had as of Saturday.
But the situation last night was not promising. Gore had picked up 225 votes in Broward County, and Bush had picked up 14 in Palm Beach County. Both counties planned to continue recounts today - unless the U.S. Supreme Court should call a halt.
Gore also had made a net gain of 157 votes in Miami-Dade County, with thousands of ballots yet to be recounted. But, on Wednesday, the county canvassing board stopped its manual recount and said it would not send in to state officials those added Gore votes as part of its final tally.
Those two actions are the basis of Gore's planned court contest of the Miami-Dade results. "We want a full, fair and accurate count and the only way left to do that is to file a contest for Miami-Dade," according to Gore campaign spokeswoman Jenny Backus.
She conceded that the planned contest meant that, if Gore is behind in the state tally this weekend, he will not concede defeat.
The vice president's lawyers were preparing the challenge because they failed to get the Florida Supreme Court to order the Miami-Dade board to resume the manual recount and to include in any final tally votes gained by Gore.
In a one-paragraph order yesterday, the state's seven justices denied the Gore request, giving no explanation. But that court stressed that the vice president was free to pursue his complaint against the Miami-Dade board "in any future proceeding" - a phrase that Gore's lawyers interpret as a reference to an election contest in state court.
Should the vice president wind up ahead in the final tally on Sunday afternoon, and be declared the winner by state officials, it is certain that the Texas governor would then be the one to start a court contest to the result. The Bush camp would be able to then contest the constitutionality of the manual recounting.