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Gore closes gap slightly in hand count

PALM BEACH, Fla. - Vice President Gore inched forward yesterday in his effort to overtake Texas Gov. George Bush in Florida's presidential balloting, gaining 369 votes in Broward County's disputed manual recount, but losing 91 as Palm Beach County began its hand recount and a handful of counties around the state reconsidered their final tallies.

In the crucial hand recount of ballots in Palm Beach County, the three-member canvassing board showed Mr. Bush with an overall net gain of 15 votes. The tally included some of the 6,000 disputed ballots the board began reviewing in the morning.

Mr. Bush picked up 24 votes in four counties that reviewed absentee overseas ballots, including those from military personnel, accepting some they had previously rejected.

In Nassau County, the canvassing board unanimously decided to use the Nov. 7 vote totals instead of the results of a machine recount that inadvertently missed about 200 presidential ballots. The action resulted in a net gain of 52 votes for Mr. Bush, according to the Associated Press.

Statewide Mr. Bush's unofficial lead is 659 votes if hand recounts and recertified totals from at least three counties are included. His official lead, not including any ballots from these recounts, is 930 votes.

The Palm Beach board members, all Democrats, were operating for the first time under a circuit court order issued Wednesday instructing them to count ballots if “the intention of the voter can be fairly and satisfactorily ascertained.”

Their deliberations indicate that the Palm Beach board is counting as votes a greater number of the “dimpled” chads - the tiny paper rectangles punched by voters that are indented but not detached from the ballots.

“If we were giving them a grade, they'd have gone from `not passing' to now `barely passing,'” said Benedict Kuehne, an attorney for the Florida Democratic Party.

In the state that will determine which candidate wins the White House, Democrats remained confident that Mr. Gore will gain enough votes in the Broward and Palm Beach hand recounts to overtake Mr. Bush's lead of 930 votes statewide.

Bush supporters, meanwhile, continued to protest in the courts and the streets that the hand recounts are arbitrary.

“When is it going to stop?... There is something wrong with this system,” said the GOP's 1996 presidential candidate, Bob Dole, who fired up a crowd of 300 Republican partisans demonstrating outside the Broward County courthouse where the recount was under way.

About two-thirds of the way through their review of about 1,800 questionable ballots, the three members of the Broward County canvassing board reported a net gain of 369 votes for Mr. Gore.

The canvassing boards face a 5 p.m. deadline tomorrow to complete the recounts.

Both boards began their laborious recounts last week, retabulating, precinct by precinct, all the clearly punched presidential votes and setting aside the ballots that are questionable because they are dimpled, partially perforated, or because representatives of one of the presidential candidates had objected to them. The boards are examining those ballots to assess whether the intent of the voter can be determined.

“I have never seen so many nicks, dings, and indentations,” said County Judge Charles W. Burton, who heads the Palm Beach board. “We are dealing with marks that are barely discernible to the human eye.”

Board members held the ballots up to the light, turned them over, and passed them around in an effort to determine whether the voter intended to express a choice in the presidential race.

In Broward County, the sole Republican on the board, Judge Robert Rosenberg, used a magnifying glass to examine ballots.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a strong supporter of Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush, plans to certify the election results tomorrow night - regardless of a Supreme Court hearing Friday.

“The Department of State is prepared for the earliest contingency, which would be certification Sunday evening,” her chief of staff Ben McKay said.

She stood by the announcement even after the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the dispute.

Florida's top lawmakers decided to hold off on a special session and instead join Mr. Bush's legal team in a lawsuit headed to the U.S. Supreme Court. House Speaker Tom Feeney said state lawmakers have hired lawyers to represent them in Supreme Court proceedings over hand recounts of Florida ballots.

After Florida's Supreme Court decided Tuesday to allow hand counts in three predominantly Democratic counties, angry Republican lawmakers discussed calling a special session to seat their own slate of electors.

That could still happen, but Mr. Feeney said he doesn't anticipate any action until next week.

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