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Election 2000: Bush and Gore Camps Await Judge's Word on Florida's 5:00 p.m. Certification Deadline

Aired November 14, 2000 - 12:02 p.m. ET


FRANK SESNO, CNN ANCHOR: Well, it is a fast and furious day and one that may be pivotal in campaign and election 2000. As you just heard, we are waiting word from Florida, it is due any minute now, on whether the state's deadline of 5:00 p.m. today to certify its presidential vote will stand, or whether the judge will overrule Florida's secretary of state and give several counties more time to count those ballots by hand.

Here are the very latest developments in a nut shell so you know what is going on. A decision on the deadline and whether it should be enforced or extended may affect counties that have been hand counting votes. Palm Beach County suspended its hand count following conflicting opinions in whether a manual recount is warranted or even allowed.

And in the past hour, the Bush campaign offered what it calls a deal to end all legal challenges, if the Gore campaign accepts the 5:00 p.m. vote count. You just heard Mr. Daley saying it wasn't much of a deal to begin with, and they were very unimpressed by the whole thing -- to wrap it up and let the courts do their business.

Now the situation is confusing to say the least. Our correspondents and legal experts are poring over the fine print to try to bring some clarity and help us understand where things stand, and more importantly, where they may go. So we begin in Tallahassee with CNN national correspondent Mike Boettcher.

Mike, you're waiting for the judge, this is the big one for now?

MIKE BOETTCHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No, absolutely, Frank. You know, the one thing you can say about this story at least it's a convenient story to cover. Across the street, you have press conferences by Secretary Baker, here at the circuit court, in Tallahassee, whoever loses here will have to walk one block and appeal to the supreme court.

But what we're waiting on here is the opinion by and the decision by Judge Terry Lewis, who is a circuit court judge here. Yesterday he heard arguments in this case by the Democratic Party. President Gore and the counties -- Vice President Gore and the counties that want to have a recount in this state.

They argued that there should not be a deadline today, the other side said that is the state law. It should be stuck with. And so we're going to find out what the judge decides.

It will be very, very crucial and all of these different lawsuits will spin off from this. And other strategies on how to handle wherever this is going to go, Frank.

SESNO: Now, we can see some of the activity behind you, we certainly can hear it. This is really what it all comes down to today, this 5:00 p.m. deadline because, in the balance there, Mike, is whether these other counties are going to be able to continue counting or in some cases resume their counting, their handing counting?

BOETTCHER: This is definitely the center of the court universe today. There are cameras from all over the world here. The lawyers, some of the lawyers who were involved in this case here are waiting. And what will happen is, the court administrator, they'll give us a two-minute warning, then walk up to the podium, and they will read whatever the decision is by Judge Lewis.

I had mentioned earlier, the interesting thing about Judge Lewis, everyone around here says he's a fair judge, he has a good reputation around here, but he is also a novelist, and the last book he wrote was called "Conflict of Interest." So it is quite a scene here as people wait for this next big cases, in this case of many big case.

SESNO: He is getting plenty of material for his next book, Mike.

Mike, do this for us, if you will: The secretary of state says, the state say the counties must be in by 5:00 p.m. today, that is on the books and that is when they need to report. The other side says: No, there is provision, there is room to maneuver that would allow states additional time, and in any case, the absentee overseas ballots don't need to be counted until Friday.

Beyond that, what are the positions of the two sides, as they go before the judge?

BOETTCHER: Well, it actually is an argument over fine language in two separate statutes in the law. According to the secretary of state of Florida, Katherine Harris, and her legal counsel, the law says that any ballots received -- any certifications, pardon me, from the counties not received by 5:00 p.m. today, shall be ignored by the state.

But then there is another section of the law that says may be ignored by the state.

Now the attorneys on the Republican side argue that that provision that says may be ignored is only intended for use in natural disasters like hurricanes, in order to delay the law.

The Democrat side says no, that is the statute that should be used, that gives the secretary of state some leeway, that she doesn't have to do it at 5:00.

So those basically are the two competing statutes and it's the difference between what shall means and what may means. SESNO: We shall come back to you for sure, Mike.

Right now we want to tell you this. Officials on both sides of this highest of stakes political showdown have one eye on the clock, clearly, and one eye on the count. Within the last hour, former Secretary of State James Baker, speaking for the Bush campaign, in reference to the clock and the count, had this to say.


JAMES BAKER, BUSH CAMPAIGN OBSERVER: Both sides should agree to accept the vote count of all the counties at the statutory deadline today, 5:00 p.m. In addition, both sides should agree to accept the overseas absentee ballots as of midnight Friday, in accordance with the law.


SESNO: All right, so let us make the rounds a bit and check in now with reporters who are covering the men, the players at the very heart of this controversy, those who would be the 43rd president of the United States.

John Karl is following developments from the vice president's perspective. My colleague, Jeanne Meserve is with the Bush campaign, as she has been doggedly in Austin, Texas.

Jeanne, to you first. We did hear former Secretary of State Baker, presumably he is reflecting what is going on in the campaign. Are you hearing anything else?

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, I talked to one campaign aide just a short time ago, who acknowledged that this offer made by Baker has a strategic intent, that he described as smoking out the Democrats on whether what they -- their real intention are, do they want a fair recount, he said, or do they want endless delay with hand recounts in the most Democratic of precincts in the counties, until they get the result they want.

What they want to point out here, if they possibly can, with the rejection of this deal is that the Democrats are after political expediency not actually fairness in the process.

So even if this is a non-starter, clearly, the Bush campaign hoping to make a few points in the court of public opinion -- Frank.

SESNO: Jeanne, it is probably worth noting, once again, that of 6 million votes cast in the state of Florida that about 300 some odd votes separate these men unofficially at this time. To what degree, on this day, do the Bush campaign officials say they are concerned that they are going to go behind, they'll lose if this count continues?

MESERVE: Well, you heard Secretary Baker saying margin could drop to an even smaller one. The key question still is those overseas absentee ballots, which have yet to be tallied. In earlier days, the Bush campaign was making a point of saying: Well, we think we'll win those, because historically they have come in for Republican candidates. They're not saying that so much anymore perhaps because they want to make an offer, like the one they made today, look a little bit more attractive.

Also some people have noted that the Democrats made a real concerted efforts overseas to round up votes, and the fact that Joe Lieberman is on the ticket, and this is Florida that we are talking about, where potentially there are a lot of Jewish voters overseas, in fact, the overseas ballots could split a little bit differently this time around -- Frank.

SESNO: All right, Jeanne, thanks a lot.

Over to John Karl and the view from the Gore camp -- John.

JONATHAN KARL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Frank, the Gore campaign never took this offer from James Baker seriously. They believe it was a non-offer. They say James Baker was essentially offering exactly what you saw come from the Florida secretary of state, Katherine Harris, which is going along with this 5:00 deadline today. That is the matter in court, that is the matter that we expect to hear from Judge Lewis really any time now.

And the Gore campaign expects that Judge Lewis will rule in their favor and allow an extension of that deadline to give these counties long enough to count their votes by hand. And even if they don't, the Gore campaign is fully prepared to appeal the decision. As a matter of fact, they expect the Bush campaign to appeal it, if it goes for the Gore campaign.

And they have brought in perhaps one of the biggest legal guns that they could have. They brought in David Boies, who of course was the lawyer that argued the antitrust case against Microsoft for the Justice Department. He'll be handling the appeal in Florida state supreme court for the Gore campaign.

SESNO: John Karl.



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