Legal teams for both George W. Bush and Al Gore will be gearing up today for what could be Gore’s last, legal push for the presidency.
On Thursday morning, the Florida Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments on whether to consider Gore’s challenge to the state’s presidential election results. By noon today, lawyers for Gore and Bush are to file briefs in preparation for the high court hearing.
Before the justices is a Gore appeal to a ruling Monday by Leon County Circuit Court Judge N. Sanders Sauls. The judge rejected Gore’s contest case and refused to order a hand count of disputed ballots from two heavily Democratic counties.
What the vice president wants is to overtake Bush’s 537-vote lead in Florida and cost the GOP nominee the state’s crucial electoral votes and the White House.
While Gore focused on his legal fight and spoke to reporters, Bush received his first national security briefing from the CIA on Tuesday and expressed confidence in a televised interview that he would prevail.
Their respective running mates made the rounds on Capitol Hill. Joseph Lieberman sought the support of Democratic senators while Dick Cheney met with House Republicans about the presidential transition.
“The Florida Supreme Court is going to rule in two or three days, and if he’s unsuccessful on that, then I think that is the end of it,” said Sen. Evan Bayh, of Indiana, one of several Democrats to express those sentiments in Washington.
But that was precisely what Gore avoided saying he would do.
Asked directly whether he would concede if he loses his appeal, he replied, “when the issues that are now being considered in the Florida Supreme Court are decided, that’ll be an important point.”
Later, he noted the presence of other lawsuits in the courts — cases in which he is not a formal party — in which judges are being asked to throw out thousands of absentee ballots. The cases in Seminole and Martin counties are politically tricky for Gore, since his entire challenge to Bush’s certified victory has been based on a claim that every vote should be counted, particularly questionable ballots that were rejected by counting machines in other regions of the state.
“I don’t know what will happen there,” the vice president told reporters of the absentee ballot lawsuits. “I think that those two cases are likely to travel the same route as the case that went into Judge Sauls’ court and will end up in the Florida Supreme Court.”
Speaking in his first interview since Nov. 7, Bush took on a conciliatory tone and told CBS’ 60 Minutes II he hoped he and Gore would “work to heal whatever wounds may exist” once a winner is declared.
Bush said he does not view Gore as a sore loser. “We both put our heart and soul into the campaign,” he said in the interview. “... I think he’s doing what he thinks is right.”
With Florida set to certify its 25 presidential electors next Tuesday, Gore has little time to turn the tide in his favor. In a news conference at the White House Tuesday, Gore expressed hope that he would. “The effort I have under way is simply to make sure that all the votes are counted,” Gore said at a White House news conference. “I don’t feel anything other than optimistic.”
Double Blows for Gore
The week began with a double whammy for Gore on Monday when he lost in the circuit court ruling and did not gain any ground when the U.S. Supreme Court failed to rule decisively earlier that day.
Hours before Sauls handed down his decision, the U.S. Supreme Court set aside a Nov. 21 ruling by the Florida high court that had extended the deadline for ballot recounting, saying there is “considerable uncertainty as to the precise grounds for the decision.”
The circuit court ruling was a particular blow to Gore, however, because the judge was pointed in his decision, saying the Gore legal team had failed the “burden of proof” in persuading the court that a recount should be done.
Craig Waters, a spokesman for the Florida Supreme Court, said Gore’s appeal was likely to be resolved quickly.
“This is a case that has been certified as a matter of great public importance, requiring the immediate resolution of Florida’s highest court,” Waters said. “The court takes the word ‘immediate’ very seriously, so this will be an expedited matter.”
The justices, however, have not yet formally agreed to take the case, Waters told reporters. The court is considering whether or not it has jurisdiction in the matter.
Lieberman, Gore's running mate and a Connecticut senator, said the state Supreme Court would likely be the election's last legal battleground.
“We have always said that the final arbiter of the contest over the election in Florida would not be any of the candidates for president or vice president, or not even the secretary of state of Florida, but the Florida Supreme Court,” he told reporters on Capitol Hill Tuesday morning.
ABCNEWS political analyst George Stephanopoulos says Gore’s chances for victory are slim.
“If he’s going to turn it around in the Florida Supreme Court, he’s going to need the mother of all Perry Mason moments,” Stephanopoulos said. “I think most people believe that’s unlikely [and] that he’ll finish out the process this week and that’s it.”
Race Against the Clock
Under federal law, each state must certify its presidential electors by Dec. 12, in preparation for a vote by the full Electoral College six days later. Their ballots will then be tallied during a joint session of Congress on Jan. 6. Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., said if the election dispute is not resolved by Dec. 12, “partisan loyalty and our fidelity to the constitutional process [will] begin to collide.”
And Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature has threatened to step in and appoint a slate of electors if it appears the legal wrangling will drag on past the deadline.
The Gore camp is hopeful the Florida high court will overturn Judge Sauls’ ruling and order a manual recount of 14,000 “undervote” ballots—those which registered no presidential vote in previous machine counts—from Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties.
“When the issues that are now bring considered in the Florida Supreme Court are decided,” Gore said. “That’ll be an important point.”
The vice president is confident he would pick up enough new votes in a recount to allow him to overtake his opponent’s 537-vote margin of victory in the state’s certified tally.
The Bush camp wants to stop any additional hand counts from going forward, but has argued that if any ballots are to be recounted, then all of the counties’ 1.1 million ballots should be recounted.
Asked if his opponent should concede the race, Bush replied: “That’s a decision the vice president has to make. It’s a difficult decision.
“I can understand what he may be going through,” Bush added. “It’s been a very interesting period of time for both of us.”
ABCNEWS.com’s Carter Yang and the Associated Press contributed to this report.