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Florida recount begins as candidates wait

Bush cautiously claims victory; Gore urges 'respect for rule of law'

MIAMI, Florida (CNN) -- GOP presidential nominee George W. Bush cautiously claimed victory Wednesday, even though his narrow lead in Florida -- a crucial electoral state -- was stuck in limbo pending a vote recount.

His Democratic rival, Vice President Al Gore, gave a brief statement this afternoon in which he urged "respect for the rule of law," as Florida officials began carefully counting ballots again.

"We now need to resolve this election in a way that is fair and forthright, and in a way that is fully consistent with the Constitution and our laws," Gore said. "Because of what is at stake, this matter must be resolved expeditiously, but deliberately and without any rush to judgment."

Bush, the Texas governor, has a 1,784-vote lead over Gore in Florida. Because the lead is so narrow, Florida's election officials, by law, enacted a mandatory recount Wednesday. The recount must be completed by the end of the business day Thursday.

"Because of the closeness of the presidential election, an automatic recount as provided by law is currently under way," Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the Republican presidential hopeful's younger brother, told reporters Wednesday afternoon.

"We thought it would be close. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine it would be this close," Jeb Bush said. "I have the greatest confidence in the independently elected bipartisan group of country supervisors of elections that exist all across our state."

Four Florida counties reported the first recount results Wednesday afternoon, with only a slight change indicated for the vice president, who picked up 23 votes among their combined tallies.

"This morning brings news from Florida that the final vote count there shows that Secretary (Dick) Cheney and I have carried the state of Florida," George W. Bush told reporters Wednesday afternoon. "And if that result is confirmed by an automatic recount as we expect it to be, then we have won the election."

"We have to make sure the outcome is finalized as quickly as possible," he said, adding that the situation reflects on the "strength of our democracy."

Bush promised that he would work hard to gain the confidence of Gore voters.

A county-by-county recount had begun by Wednesday afternoon, and election officials said they would release results as they received them.

The Electoral College and ultimate victory for either Gore or Bush is at stake.

In Washington, President Clinton, newly returned from New York after first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's victory in that state's Senate race, said the continually unfolding events surrounding this year's presidential election should quash any notion that individual votes are not significant.

"If ever there was a doubt about the importance of exercising democracy's most fundamental right, the right to vote, yesterday put it to rest," Clinton said after stepping off Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House.

The American people have spoken," he added. "It's too bad it's going to take a little while to determine what it was they had to say."

The president said he and Gore spoke after the vice president retracted his one-on-one concession to Bush. He did not give much detail about the contents of that conversation.

"I talked to him (after the phone call)," Clinton said. "He was pleased that he was getting the popular vote, and we had a very good talk. He congratulated Hillary."

Both candidates spent much of Wednesday at their homes -- Gore in Carthage, Tennessee, and Bush in Austin, Texas.

Earlier Wednesday, Bush met with his senior staff and his vice presidential running mate, Dick Cheney. Bush aide Joe Albaugh said Bush was "in a good mood. He is confident he is going to be the next president."

The Bush campaign told CNN on Wednesday that Bush advisers expect the governor to be declared the president-elect, despite the close election results and the recount.

"We hope and believe we have elected the next president of the United States," said Bush campaign chairman Dan Evans. "They're still counting and I'm confident, when it's all said and done, we will prevail."

A Gore campaign spokesman said his side believes enough votes remain uncounted to bring victory to the Democratic ticket.

But if that is not the case, Gore campaign chairman William Daley said, "Vice President Gore and Senator (Joe) Lieberman are fully prepared to concede and to support Governor Bush if and when he is officially elected president."

Gore overtook Bush in the national popular vote tally by 1 percentage point, 49 percent to 48 percent.

Officials in Florida said all the precinct ballots and all the absentee ballots had been counted in all 67 counties with the major exception of overseas absentee ballots. Now all the votes will be recounted by supervisors from all counties, with representatives from the news media and both candidates present.

Election officials said either the number of overseas absentee ballots or a change as a result of the recount could tip the election for Bush or for Gore.

It is also possible that one candidate could win the Electoral College vote and the other win the popular vote, which hasn't happened in a hundred years.

Representatives of all the candidates were invited to observe the recount, and the Gore campaign sent former Secretary of State Warren Christopher to Florida to help oversee it.

"We don't intend to provoke a constitutional crisis," Christopher told reporters in Nashville after Gore made a brief appearance.

Bush said he was sending former Secretary of State James Baker to perform similar duties, calling him "a man of impeccable credentials."

Buchanan, ballot box controversies
In a separate controversy, Palm Beach County voters complained that their punch card ballots had the names of presidential candidates on two pages instead of one. The voters said it led to confusion and they may have voted for Reform Party candidate Patrick Buchanan when they had intended to vote for Gore.

"I saw it myself with my own eyes," Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Florida, told CNN. "I talked to hundreds of people. There is no doubt there was mass confusion in Palm Beach County yesterday at the ballot box, which resulted in at least it seems about 3,000 plus votes for Pat Buchanan and I know that that's incorrect."

In Miami, early morning hubbub surrounding the discovery of a locked ballot box at a church was quieted in the afternoon when the box was popped open, and found to be stuffed with clerical supplies.

"We have accounted for all voted and unvoted ballots," said John Clouser, supervisor of elections for Miami-Dade County. Clouser said such boxes, despite being marked "ballot box," are often left behind in precinct locations to be picked up the next day.

They normally contain such items as telephones, handicapped signs, and envelopes, he said.

Gore leads in the popular vote count by just over 275,000 votes -- 48,734,682 for Gore and 48,459,592 for Bush.

Green Party candidate Ralph Nader -- who received 2,658,281 votes -- was accused of being a spoiler for Gore by siphoning off Democratic votes. Reform Party candidate Buchanan received 443,135 votes.

Buchanan offered Nader some advice.

"I would currently advise Ralph, given the numbers that I've seen, that he may be interested in Secret Service protection when he comes in here this morning from some angry Democrats, who I'm sure are going to blame him for the defeat of Al Gore. And if he gets credit for that, more power to him," Buchanan said.

At a Wednesday news conference, Nader said he supported the Florida recount and said his candidacy proved the Green Party is "alive and well' and has been established as a legitimate third party.

Turnout up
The Committee for the Study of the American Electorate estimated 52 to 53 percent of the eligible voters cast ballots. That number was about 55 percent in 1992.

Without a decision in Florida -- which commands 25 electoral votes -- Gore led the projected tally in the Electoral College by 14 votes, 260 to 246.

The only other state yet to have a projected winner is Oregon, which holds seven electoral votes. A candidate needs 270 electoral votes to win the presidency.

If Bush takes Florida, the state's electoral votes would push his number to 271 -- one more than necessary to win the presidency. If Gore wins Florida, he'll have 285 -- but if he doesn't win Florida, and even if he takes Oregon, he'll fall short of 270 by three electoral votes.

Election Day
The Bush family, including Bush's father, former President Bush, gathered Tuesday evening at the governor's home in Austin, Texas, to watch returns.

Gore and his family did the same at their home in Carthage, Tennessee.

Early Tuesday evening Gore aides told CNN that the Rev. Jesse Jackson had been dispatched to Pennsylvania in a last-minute effort to increase voter turnout among Democrats in that battleground state, while Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, sent some of his staff to New Hampshire on a similar mission.

As election results poured in, the electoral vote appeared to be moving in Gore's favor, and at one point, news media projections showed that Gore would win Florida. But soon afterward, media outlets, including CNN, switched Florida's status back to a toss-up. Later the media projected Bush a winner in Florida and then retracted that projection.

As the state vote tally appeared to be moving toward Bush, the vice president was very close to making a concession speech, aides said, but staffers convinced him the Florida results were too inconclusive.

CNN Senior White House Correspondent John King, CNN Correspondent Jeanne Meserve and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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