WASHINGTON -- When the Florida Supreme Court ruled last week that the ballot recount in selected Democratic counties should continue and the results certified, the Gore campaign was euphoric. It wasn't pleased with the deadline set by the court, but at least the process was going forward. The euphoria, however, turned out to be short-lived, for the most ironic of reasons.
The good justices, in ordering that the three counties doing the recounting complete their work and report their numbers in five days, did basically what their decision was supposed to undo. It set a deadline just as impossible for one of the counties to meet as the one set earlier by the Republican secretary of state and Bush campaign co-chair in Florida, Katherine Harris.
The canvassing board in Miami-Dade County, faced with the undoable task of recounting 654,000 votes by hand in five days, simply threw in the sponge. Its precipitous action, intentionally or not, was the sharpest possible criticism of the court's unreasonable deadline.
But beyond that, it was an abandonment of its responsibility in the face of a legally requested recount by the Gore campaign. Not only was Mr. Gore's chance of picking up additional votes in the county lost, he also lost 157 votes he had gained up to that point in the recount when the board decided to settle for the county vote already reported to Ms. Harris.
Not surprisingly, the Gore campaign quickly asked the Florida Supreme Court to order the Miami-Dade board to resume the recount, and, not surprisingly, the court declined. Its previous order permitted the recount to continue but didn't mandate it.
So Mr. Gore was left with making up the 930 votes by which he trailed Mr. Bush after Ms. Harris' deadline in the uncounted ballots in Broward and Palm Beach counties, where a dispute raged over whether to count "dimpled" ballots bearing an indentation by the voting machine but no perforation.
When the state Supreme Court permitted the recount to continue with a new deadline, Republican Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah observed sagely that the justices "seem to have cut the baby in half." He was right. They tossed the drowning Mr. Gore a lifeline, but made it too short to reach him. In their concern that there be sufficient time after the amended certification for challenges as the law requires, they repeated the same crippling condition to the recounting that they rejected in the Harris deadline.
The court made clear in its pre-decision hearing last week that it was determined to see that Florida's 25 electors were certified by Dec. 12, the date set by federal law. Failure to do so would cause the state to lose its electoral votes, effectively disenfranchising the millions of Floridians who voted for Mr. Gore, George W. Bush and even Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan.
Of particular political significance was that with Florida's 25 votes left out of the total, the votes required for a majority of the Electoral College would be reduced from 270 to 257. With Mr. Gore already having 260 to 246 for Mr. Bush without Florida, the vice president would be elected.
The Gore lawyers, in pleading for a later deadline for the recounts, argued that it wouldn't take Ms. Harris very long to make the certification once sufficient time was permitted for all recounts to be completed. The Miami-Dade canvassing board had already said it would need until Dec. 1 to finish the job. But the court obviously felt it couldn't wait that long.
The practical effect of its impractical deadline was to oblige the Gore campaign to look beyond the amended certification to the state law's last resort -- the period set aside for contesting the certification, between now and Dec. 12, in which the Bush campaign certainly will also be aggressively engaged. The court's decision that, in Mr. Bennett's words, cut the baby in half assured that the fight would go on, and with it growing rancor on both sides.
The Florida justices no doubt acted as they did in a well-meaning effort to see the whole business settled without the involvement of the legislative branch, either in Tallahassee or Washington, which has been speculated about and even threatened, but that outcome seems by no means certain now.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.