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With the calendar closing in, the U.S. Supreme Court set aside today a Florida ruling that narrowed George W. Bush’s minuscule margin over Al Gore in the state that will settle their presidential struggle — but without a clear decision to settle the issue. That ruling in Washington led a Florida judge to delay his own verdict on Gore’s case for hand recounts of ballots in two counties his lawyers argue would reverse the Bush edge for the decisive 25 electoral votes in the challenged and stalled presidential election. With electors to be chosen Dec. 12, and with leaders of the Republican state legislature considering a special session to name a Bush slate, anything that slows the process works to Bush’s advantage. Gore’s lawyers said as much in arguing their recount case in Tallahassee. The Supreme Court ruling, issued as routinely as though it was an everyday matter instead of a judgment on the closest presidential election in 124 years, did what Bush had asked — but only temporarily. “The judgment of the Supreme Court of Florida is … vacated and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion,” the court ruled, its decision issued while the justices heard arguments in a soccer mom’s appeal against a seat belt arrest. The action added more uncertainty in the most uncertain election of modern times. Bush had appealed a Florida Supreme Court ruling in which Gore won an extension of the time for certification of the state election, time spent recounting until Nov. 26. Bush was then certified the winner by 537 votes, down from the edge of 930 he had held. Since the U.S. Supreme Court sent the case back to Tallahassee “for further proceedings,” a spokesman for the Florida high court said he couldn’t comment on what happens next. Within minutes of the Supreme Court ruling, Judge N. Sanders Sauls sent word that his own ruling on Gore’s case for hand recounts in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties would be delayed while he tries to determine whether the ruling has any impact on the case before him. After presiding over a trial unlike any other — a grueling weekend of testimony capped by closing arguments that stretched late into Sunday night — Sauls, a Leon County circuit judge, promised to rule quickly on Gore’s bid for a recount of 14,000 disputed ballots in heavily Democratic counties. Gore said in advance that if he lost, that case, too, would be appealed to the Florida Supreme Court. Bush attorney Barry Richard said the GOP nominee should also be expected to appeal should Gore win his recount case. Doug Hattaway, a Gore spokesman, said the U.S. Supreme Court decision would have no impact. He said the vice president is confident the Florida Supreme Court will rule for him again, and convince the high court “its decision was based on Florida law.” Another Bush attorney, Fred H. Bartlit, said he believed the Supreme Court “can’t figure out” the grounds for the Florida Supreme Court ruling. Gore’s aides already were planning steps to counter the Legislature, should it try to appoint Bush electors. “The Democratic Party is getting ready down here to put pressure on the Florida legislators,” Hattaway said earlier. The vice president was briefed Sunday by his legal team and constitutional scholar Walter Dellinger about potential legal options in the event the Florida Legislature appoints its own slate of electors. Officials familiar with the meeting stressed that Gore was not asked to sign off on any legal action against the Legislature and did not authorize any. Gore’s legal team — which already argued against the Legislature picking a slate in its U.S. Supreme Court briefings — won’t take any action against the Legislature in the next few days, if ever, but is closely monitoring the lawmakers’ actions, officials said. In an interview Sunday night on 60 Minutes, Gore said if Bush takes office on Jan. 20, 2001, “he will be sworn in as my president, too.” But, he also cautioned that will be only “when all the processes have taken place,” and predicted the issue would be settled within about two weeks. That left open the possibility the controversy would drag on beyond Dec. 18, when the Electoral College is scheduled to meet. Sen. John Breaux, D-La., said today on NBC’s “Today” show that both candidates will have to find “an appropriate time” to conclude the election battle. “The most important speech of this election is … going to be given by the loser when they concede because it will set the tone for the next four years,” said Breaux, who is among a number of Democrats being suggested for a slot in the Bush administration. “Whatever happens, both sides know this is going to end up in the Florida Supreme Court,” Gore said Sunday. “It’s not a recount. We want a first count.” Republicans contend that Florida already has had a count and two recounts, and that the Bush win certified by the GOP secretary of state should stand. Katherine Harris announced that certification on Nov. 26, the deadline set by the Florida Supreme Court when it ruled for Gore on an earlier appeal and extended the deadline to permit more time for recounting before the official figures were sent to the secretary of state. In Tallahassee, teams of attorneys for Gore and for Bush dueled for 13 hours Sunday in Sauls’ crowded, low-ceilinged courtroom, the judge rocking in his high-backed leather chair, peering over his eyeglasses at a daylong succession of witnesses. Dexter Douglass, a lead lawyer for Gore, twice tried to persuade Sauls to let the hand recounts begin and then decide whether they should count. Douglass said with the approaching deadlines, even another day or two would make Gore’s “remedy” — legalese for the new counts he thinks would make him the winner — useless for lack of time to conduct them. Sauls said no.

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