Presidency Undecided; Recount Could Take 10 Days

George W. Bush confidently predicted Wednesday he would win the presidency in short order, as his fate and that of rival Al Gore rested with Florida’s recount of nearly 6 million votes. Gore signaled he would respect the results of the review but cautioned against a “rush to judgment.”

“This morning brings news from Florida that the final vote count there shows that [vice-presidential candidate Dick] Cheney and I have carried the state of Florida,” Bush told reporters in Austin, Texas. “And if that result is confirmed in an automatic recount, as we expect it will be, we have won the election.”

The Texas governor moved to assure the nation the race would “be resolved in a quick way.” But Florida’s secretary of state, Katherine Harris, told ABCNEWS the final absentee ballots from Floridians serving in the military or living overseas “will not be resolved for 10 days.”

After President Clinton had advised Americans earlier that it could take “a little while” to determine the winner of the election, Gore urged that the process be carried out “expeditiously but deliberately — without a rush to judgment.”

Democrats Wednesday questioned possibly misleading ballots in Palm Beach County, Fla. Voters there complained the ballots were so confusing that many believed they mistakenly voted for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan when they intended to vote for Gore.

Appearing at his Nashville, Tenn., headquarters with his running mate, Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman,

Gore thanked voters for giving him a majority of the national popular vote, and signaled that “no matter what the outcome” in Florida, he would abide by the recount results.

(Follow the recount on our live results page).

“We now need to resolve this election in a way that is fair, forthright and fully consistent with our Constitution and our laws,” the vice president said. “What is at issue here is the fundamental fairness of the process as a whole.”

The Florida Roller-Coaster Ride

On a roller-coaster Election Day, Florida’s 25 electoral votes apparently swung from Democrat Gore to Republican Bush and then back into the tossup category. With 14 counties finished with their recounts so far, only 59 votes have changed hands, leaving Bush in the lead by 1,725 of the more than 5.8 million cast. The final recount, minus outstanding absentee ballots, is expected to be completed by Thursday afternoon.

Whoever wins Florida wins the presidency. Oregon is also still up in the air, but that state’s seven electoral votes wouldn’t push either candidate to the 270 needed to win.

As of this morning, Gore held 260 electoral votes. Bush held 246.

Amid the uncertainty, Bush walked and talked like a president-elect, as his campaign confirmed that he is already taking steps to prepare for his inauguration. Bush sources say he will name Cheney, to head up the White House transition team. Bush sources also confirmed that Andy Card, the former transportation secretary who headed up the Republican National Convention this summer, is a likely choice to become White House chief of staff.

Clinton’s Caution

Clinton congratulated both Bush and Gore for a “vigorous, hard-fought and truly remarkable campaign.” But countering Bush’s indication that a speedy resolution was on the way, Clinton said, “The American people have now spoken, but it’s going to take a little while to determine exactly what they said.”

Bush and Gore have each dispatched elder statesmen of their parties to Florida to oversee the vote count. James Baker, secretary of state under Bush’s father, was heading there on behalf of the Republican candidate. Baker will oversee a team of about 10 Bush staffers, including general counsel Ben Ginsberg and spokesman Ray Sullivan.

“He’s a man of impeccable credentials and integrity, and someone the American people can trust to make sure the outcome is finalized as quickly as possible and in a calm and thoughtful manner,” Bush said.

The Gore campaign was sending a team of Democratic lawyers and vote-counters led by former Clinton Secretary of State Warren Christopher to monitor the recount, amid subtle efforts by Gore surrogates to question the integrity of the Florida vote in general.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, brother of the Republican candidate, recused himself from any role overseeing the recount to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest. “The stakes are high and the circumstances demand responsibility,” he said.

Absentee Ballots Remain

Elections supervisors had sent out 585,000 absentee ballots and 416,000 had been returned by late Monday. An unknown number of overseas ballots, many of which belong to military personnel and their families, also haven’t been counted. The law allows 10 days to count outstanding overseas ballots as long as they are postmarked no later than Election Day.

Many absentee ballots remain in Florida, but on-the-ground results in several counties are also being scrutinized. And though overseas military voters tend to go Republican, a young military group could contain many African-Americans and Latinos who may vote Democratic.

Thousands of Florida votes are also under scrutiny because of alleged ballot irregularities, including the possibility that some voters may have inadvertently marked their ballots for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan when they meant to vote for Bush or Gore. (See related story.)

A Florida Democratic Party official has raised a concern that thousands of votes for Gore may have been omitted from the vice president’s vote total because of the Buchanan mix-up. Democratic Party officials also said a computer error may have caused an undercount of Gore votes in Volusia County.

Third-Party Spoilers?

On the third-party front, Ralph Nader did not get the 5 percent result he needed for the Green Party to gain federal funding in the next election. And Buchanan, whose candidacy shattered Ross Perot’s Reform Party, scored less than 1 percent. The Reform Party will lose its $12 million in federal funds for the 2004 election.

But Buchanan said he and Nader may have functioned as spoilers in an election where every single vote counted.

“In the state of Florida, the decisive state, Mr. Bush is winning the state by 2,000 votes, and we received 17,000 by last count,” he said.

The Sunshine State was not one of Nader’s strongest states, but his 2 percent looms large there, given that less than one half of 1 percent separates Bush and Gore. Buchanan says Nader has a nationwide effect.

“Mr. Nader got, I believe, in the neighborhood of 2.5 million votes. You can spread those any way you want, and it would have given Mr. Gore the election, state after state after state. So what I think we have seen here is the lethal power of third parties in American politics,” Buchanan said.

Nader shied away from saying he’d killed Gore’s chances.

“There are too many variables right now. It could have been the Democrats were energized because of this challenge to get out more of their votes,” the Green Party candidate said. “I’ve always said that it was Al Gore’s election to lose, that only Al Gore could beat Al Gore. We’ll see.”

Spinning Wildly

Both campaigns tried to spin the current results as positively as they could. But reporters on the ground said Bush campaign operatives were confused, angry and somewhat puzzled after a night that saw defeat, victory and then finally mystery.

“The only thing that remains [in Florida] are overseas ballots, usually military personnel,” Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer told ABCNEWS’ Good Morning America. “In 1996, those ballots broke 54 percent for [Republican] Bob Dole in a year in which Dole [lost] the state with 43 percent of the vote.”

Gore communications director Mark Fabiani concentrated on Gore’s apparent win of the popular vote. Gore’s current lead of 200,000 votes is narrow enough not to be definitive at this time.

“He won the popular vote. He got more votes than George Bush did across the great breadth of this country,” Fabiani told Good Morning America.

Meanwhile, the Gore campaign is trying to create political space for its challenge to the Florida results by emphasizing the difference between the popular and electoral votes, ABCNEWS political analyst George Stephanopoulos told Good Morning America.

“If they win the popular vote, they believe they’ll have the public on their side. Most of the public thinks that the winner of the popular vote wins the election. So this possible difference between who wins the popular vote and who wins the Electoral College could shake this country up,” Stephanopoulos said.

Historian Michael Beschloss agreed a disparity would put a strain on the political system.

“Americans love the idea of popular will. We’d much prefer a president who wins by the popular vote,” he said.

More Recounts?

Recount remains a possible issue in several other states.

In Oregon, which remained too close to call early Wednesday morning, election officials would hold a recount if the differential between the candidates was one-fifth of 1 percent of the total. If the total was greater, either Bush or Gore could file a request for recount through the secretary of state’s office. Bush held a 2 percentage point lead over Gore in the state with 70 percent of the vote counted.

In Iowa, Gore had received 49 percent, or 606,086 votes, narrowly defeating Bush’s 48 percent, or 597,538 votes, with 94 percent of precincts reporting. If the final tally has a margin of victory of less than 1 percent, election officials will hold a recount. Candidates can request a recount if the difference is greater.

In Wisconsin, officials said they hadn’t decided whether to ask for a recount yet, though only 6,000 votes separated the candidates Wednesday morning. With 99 percent of precincts reporting in the state, Gore had 1,239,774 votes, or 48 percent, compared to 1,233,512, or 48 percent, for Bush.

Bush Scores in South

Aside from the chaos in Florida, Bush won the South solidly, from Virginia and the Carolinas on the Atlantic coast to his home state of Texas. He embarrassed Gore by capturing the vice president’s home state of Tennessee, along with Clinton’s home state of Arkansas. Much of the central West and Rocky Mountain region also has gone to Bush. Among Bush’s successes in Democratic strongholds was West Virginia, which has voted Democratic in five of the last six presidential elections before this year. Bush also picked off eight states that voted for Clinton in the last two elections, including, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Nevada and Ohio.

For Gore, victories in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Illinois added to his near sweep of the Northeast. Bush managed to to eke out his only victory amid the sea of Gore states in New England by capturing New Hampshire, the scene of his most humiliating loss to Sen. John McCain during the Republican primaries — and another state that voted Democratic in 1992 and 1996.

ABCNEWS.com’s Brian Hartman, Oliver Libaw and Sascha Segan, ABCNEWS’ Ann Compton and Kendra Gahagan and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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