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Bush Claims Florida Victory; Gore Continues Court Fight

By Mark Z. Barabak

and Richard A. Serrano

Nineteen days after the election, George W. Bush proclaimed himself the United States’ next president and revealed plans Sunday night for his prospective administration after being certified the winner of Florida’s 25 crucial electoral votes.

Even as Al Gore prepared to address the nation at noon Monday, pressing the case to keep his legal fight going, the Texas governor assumed an air of inevitability by announcing the appointment of running mate Dick Cheney as head of his transition team.

Bush called on the Clinton administration to help in handing over the White House, even as partisan passions boil, saying he looked forward to “a constructive working relationship throughout this transition.”

Bush spoke about two hours after Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris declared him the winner over Gore by 537 votes out of roughly 6 million cast. Her announcement capped a final day of frenzied hand counting in Palm Beach County and a last-minute tally of scattered overseas votes in 10 other counties.

Within minutes, Gore’s running mate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, was on television denouncing the results as “an incomplete and inaccurate count” and asserting he and Gore had no choice but to contest the results in court.

“What is at issue here is nothing less than every American’s simple, sacred right to vote,” a somber Lieberman said in a brief address from Washington.

The Gore team was said to be stunned by Harris’ decision to exclude Palm Beach County’s hand counted results in the total she certified Sunday night -- a move that cost Gore as many as 200 votes.

Lieberman was immediately followed on the air by James A. Baker III, Bush’s Florida point man, who called on Gore to cease his legal fight and concede the election. “At some point there must be closure,” he said at a Tallahassee news conference, in language far more blunt than Bush used a short time later.

Still, Baker said Bush would “absolutely” go ahead with his case before the U.S. Supreme Court, challenging Florida’s high court decision allowing the hand counting of ballots to go on past the state’s normal seven-day cutoff.

“We have no assurance that the other side will stop,” he said.

Indeed, even before the certification was completed, attorneys for Gore said they would be in court Monday contesting the results in at least three Florida counties, a move that threatened to extend the seemingly endless election deep into December.

Still, Bush’s 537-vote margin presents Gore with a stiff challenge. He needs to prevail in just about every legal argument to stand any chance of winning the election.

Speaking from the second floor of the state Capitol in Austin, Bush pointedly spoke of the election in the past tense.

“The election was close, but tonight, after a count, a recount and yet another manual recount, Secretary Cheney and I are honored and humbled to have won the state of Florida, which gives us the needed electoral votes to win the election,” Bush said. “We will therefore undertake the responsibility of preparing to serve as America’s next president and vice president.”