WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - In another chapter of a remarkable presidential race, the Bush campaign took its battle to federal court yesterday to stop a recount of votes that may ultimately decide who will be the nation's next chief executive.
Campaign lawyers were unable to convince federal Judge Donald Middlebrooks to halt the hand counting of ballots in Palm Beach, Broward, and Dade counties, but are vowing to press their case to overturn the results.
The legal maneuvering may be the first shot in what could be a long and expensive war over who gets the keys to the White House.
While the case was being filed in court, officials in Palm Beach County pressed ahead with the historic recount - the third one in a week - that may forever shape the national election.
With votes in 66 of the state's 67 counties tallied, Gov. George Bush has a 327 vote lead over Vice President Gore, with only Palm Beach County's votes remaining to be counted. Those results were expected to be released early this morning.
Gore supporters are hopeful because the vice president picked up 630 votes in Palm Beach County in the first recount.
Both candidates need to win Florida's highly coveted 25 electoral votes to push them over the 270 threshold to capture the presidency.
“We know the gravity of the situation, and what we are about to do,” said Palm Beach County spokesman Bob Nichols as elections workers filed into a “recount room” to begin the job.
Bush campaign lawyers argued in their case yesterday the hand counts were “open to mischief” and not as accurate as a computer or machine tally. But state law allows such recounts if requested, said county officials. The judge, a Democrat, has set a hearing for tomorrow in Miami.
At midnight last night, elections workers - under police guard and with Gore and Bush operatives watching - were still sifting through the ballots as they took on the task of checking 4,700 cards, or 1 percent of the county's total.
The manual recount, designed to check flawed punch-card ballots, was requested by the state Democratic Party after thousands of county voters complained they were confused by the design of this year's ballot.
Voters said the punch cards were so hard to follow they accidentally voted for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan instead of Mr. Gore because the holes to punch next to the names were misaligned.
Mr. Buchanan ended up with more than 3,000 votes in the county, with hundreds of votes coming from traditionally Democratic precincts.
Democrats say the recount is important because 19,000 ballots were tossed out after people voted for two presidential candidates on the same card, possibly because they were confused by the ballot layout and design.
Six lawsuits have been filed in state circuit court since Tuesday's election demanding a revote because of the ballot controversy. And more than 6,000 people have signed a petition for a new vote.
Amid a growing political crisis, hundreds of reporters and campaign operatives were camped at the county's Government Center last night with an open view -through windows - of the recount room to watch the process unfold.
Since Tuesday, thousands have converged here for rallies and protests in a county that has long been known for polo and sugar cane fields.
Before the elections workers began the arduous task of counting the ballots yesterday, Mr. Nichols told a packed press conference, “We know the people of this country and the world are looking to this board (of elections) for answers.”
But for most of the day there were none.
The workers - in a room with video cameras recording the event - slowly and deliberately checked the ballots from four precincts in the county. As part of the recount, officials were also to count all the county's 461,000 votes with a computer.
The uncertainty of the recount has kept the nation in suspense for five days, and the state says it may be longer before officials which candidate won. They still have to count more than 7,000 overseas absentee ballots by Nov. 17.
“We're all in limbo,” Governor Bush told reporters yesterday.
Most of the ballots were hauled to Government Center yesterday by sheriff's deputies, who carried the cards in locked, metal boxes.
Workers picked one by one through the ballots, noting the votes and looking for “dimples” or other marks suggesting uncounted votes. Since the county uses punch cards, it can be a difficult process.
Questions arose over who would have the authority to interpret whether an undistinguished mark was a vote - or simply a mark. And then there was the question of “hanging chads,” or those pieces of paper that remain partly attached because the voters failed to punch it all the way through.
“These are the little things that are really a major issue,” said Mr.Nichols, the county spokesman.
Shortly after the recount began, Bush and Gore representatives in the room began bickering, underscoring the bitterness that has pervaded both camps since the recanvassing began.
Earlier in the day, James Baker of the Bush camp and Warren Christopher with the Gore team went on television denouncing the efforts of each others' campaigns, making the scene at Governemnt Center even more tense..
Extra police and sheriff's deputies have been stationed for days at Government Center, often escorting top election officials around various offices.
During the recount yesterday, confusion reigned as reporters scrambled between the election office and impromptu press conferences being staged by Gore and Bush supporters in the nearby courtyard of Government Center.
At one point, Bush campaign spokesman Tucker Askew stood in the courtyard, harshly criticizing the hand count, while 20 feet away, Gore supporter Ron Klein, a state senator from Boca Raton, told reporters the recount “is critical to the election, and the only way for closure.
“I don't understand. Are they afraid we're going to find something? We're trying to follow our own laws.”
Throughout the day, protestors traipsed through the lobby carrying signs and wearing T-shirts, saying, “The Palm Beach Ballot, “ and showing a confusing array of arrows pointing to names on a punch card.
Outside, under blue skies and wisps of clouds, demonstrators carried posters saying, “Revote,” as a veterans' parade marched by.
But most people in the downtown yesterday were at Government Center to catch a glimpse of the spectacle. In front of the windows of the “recount room, “ which faces the courtyard, as many as 15 television cameras were zooming in on what may become the most famous elections room in America.
A man carrying a Gore and Bush sign walked in front of the windows, peering at the 24 workers as they sat on long tables picking through stacks of ballots. “Look in that window. That's Democracy in there,” said Harlan Janowitz, 48, of West Palm Beach.
Inside the room, workers sat quietly on folding chairs as they ran their fingers over the ballot cards, sometimes holding them up to the light to see if holes were punched. Occasionally, they rose to stretch their legs.
“They're tired. They've been going day and night since Tuesday, and now they're back at it today,” said Mr. Nichols, the county spokesman, to a crowd of reporters. “This is a very, very big deal.”
Gore and Bush supporters huddled in the lobby and outside Government Center, some carrying signs, others saying they just wanted to witness an event that will be a chapter in history.
Or maybe even a book.
“This is not going to end tomorrow, or next week, or next year, guarantee, write it down,” said John “Big John” Chase, a local gadfly who hangs around Government Center.