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Wednesday November 15, 2000 - 8:18 PM ET

Gore Proposes Statewide Recount in Florida

By Paul Simao

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Reuters) - Democrat Al Gore proposed on Wednesday a statewide recount of Florida's disputed presidential election as a way to solve the increasingly bitter fight between him and Republican George W. Bush over hand recounting of votes.

With rhetoric between the two camps heating up and recounting the subject of pitched legal battles, Gore offered to either accept the verdict of Florida once hand recounts are completed in Palm Beach, Miami-Dade and Broward counties or accept the result of a statewide recount.

"This is a time to respect every voter and every vote,"Gore told reporters at his Washington residence with vice presidential running mate Joe Lieberman at his side. "This is a time to honor the true will of the people. So our goal must be what is right for America.''

Both Bush, the Texas governor who currently leads in Florida by a mere 300 votes out of nearly 6 million cast, and Gore, who leads the national popular vote, need Florida's 25 electoral votes to get the 270 votes needed to become the next president.

Gore proposed a one-on-one meeting with Bush as soon as possible "not to negotiate, but to improve the tone of our dialogue in America.''

Bush aides said the Texas governor would issue a response to Gore no earlier than 10:15 p.m. EST Wednesday (0315 GMT Thursday) at his mansion in Austin.

Florida's top election official, Secretary of State Katherine Harris (news - external web site), a Republican, was also expected to make a statement in Tallahassee on Wednesday night.

Bush's top Florida envoy, former Secretary of State James Baker, on Tuesday categorically rejected the idea of a statewide hand recount when asked about it by reporters. He said such a notion was "crazy.''

Gore made his offer after Baker accused the Democrats of seeking delays until they could find a way to change the results. Baker, who put the number of lawsuits filed by the Gore side at 12, said the litigation had "run amok''.

"By now the Gore campaign strategy I think is crystal clear: Keep conducting selected recounts, keep filing lawsuits, keep making false charges that divert attention and keep refusing to accept any deadline until the results change,"Baker said.

Gore said that if there were no further interruptions to the process, the statewide count could be completed within seven days of starting.

Gore's team scored a victory when the Supreme Court of Florida, seven justices all appointed by Democrats, refused to stop recounts that Harris has tried to stop.

Bush's legal team had joined Harris in asking the court to order counties to halt manual recounts and consolidate all election lawsuits in one Tallahassee court. They were also fighting the recount on the federal appellate level in Atlanta.

Gore's legal advisers, who say vote-counting machines had undercounted the vice president's vote and only human examination of each ballot can resolve the issue, responded by asking the state Supreme Court to take charge of the recount issue.

With eight days elapsed since the nation voted and still no president-elect, the fight for the White House came down to legal punch and counterpunch with new developments almost hourly.

The Florida Supreme Court issued a one-page ruling turning down Harris' petition but left open the possibility she could take her case to other courts.

On the federal court level, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta agreed on Wednesday to hear another Republican bid to end manual recounts. The full 12-judge court will hear appeals of lower court opinions that there was no federal jurisdiction involved in the Florida election.

Underscoring the constantly changing political landscape, two Democratic counties at the center of the hand-counting controversy in Florida changed positions.

Palm Beach County had planned to start the hand recount early on Wednesday but then decided to wait for a judicial ruling. Broward County officials decided to go ahead with a recount after earlier this week voting not to.

Deadline Met

Election officials in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties met a 2 p.m. EST (1900 GMT) deadline set by Harris for counties to provide written explanations why they needed to continue to count ballots. They argued the hand counting had turned up evidence of initial miscounts.

"Clearly the results of the manual recount could affect the outcome of this very close presidential election if the manual recounts in the other precincts also vary in this degree from the machine count,"wrote Palm Beach's canvassing board chairman, Judge Charles Burton Burton.

An official state count of reports submitted from all 67 counties showed on Tuesday that Bush had 2,910,492 votes to 2,910,192 for Gore.

Those totals will change at least once more when all the overseas mail-in ballots are counted. There was a midnight Friday (0500 GMT on Saturday) deadline for those ballots to be received.

Gore's team was trying to make that deadline less hard-and-fast and allow more time to complete the hand counts, which cover more than 460,000 votes in Palm Beach and more than 500,000 in Broward.

Harris began Wednesday's legal skirmishing by filing an 11-page petition asking Florida's Supreme Court to order Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties to suspend manual recounts until the courts determine whether election results certified on Tuesday can be modified.

She also asked the Supreme Court to make a Leon County Circuit Court the "exclusive venue"for any proceeding to contest the presidential election.

Bush's legal team joined the lawsuit later in the day saying the initial vote tally and the mandatory recount resulted in most voters in Florida choosing the Texas governor as president.

But Gore's campaign then said it would ask the state's Supreme Court to quickly resolve the issue of recounts.

"We will be asking the Supreme Court of Florida itself to resolve critical questions,"said former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, observing the recount for Gore.

Gore legal adviser David Boies said his campaign's petition would also ask the high court to set a "reasonable"deadline for the recounts, adding he expected the turmoil over the undecided election to end within days.