Court Gives Bush a Gift of Time ; US Supreme Court Sets Aside a Florida Ruling Permitting Selective Manual Recounts, Narrowing Gore's Legal Options

Article excerpt

The grains of sand in Al Gore's hourglass have dwindled to a precious few.

It is now almost a month since election day of the closest presidential contest in American history. Legally speaking, Vice President Gore has hope.

There are still possible combinations of court rulings in the family tree of lawsuits the ballot has spawned that would result in him standing outside the Capitol on Jan. 20 and swearing to preserve and protect the United States Constitution.

But from the beginning of this strange battle, delay has been George W. Bush's friend. Every roadblock, every U-turn, every remanded court ruling - such as yesterday's decision by the US Supreme Court - chews up precious days before the Dec. 12 deadline for the appointment of Electoral College electors.

Politically speaking, delay also serves to weaken Gore's support and strengthen any perception that Governor Bush has been the winner all along - or, rather, that Bush might

as well be anointed the winner of a vote that in statistical terms was a tie. "Whatever the murky outlook is, time is not on Al Gore's side," says Marshall Wittmann, government analyst at the Hudson Institute in Washington. "Whatever does not give him a clear victory is a setback. This decision makes the hurdle that much higher."

In legal terms, the US Supreme Court's action on Monday to vacate the Florida Supreme Court ruling allowing the continuation of hand counts was a neutral ruling. In asking the state justices for clarification as to the legal basis for their decision, the nation's highest court was in essence punting.

At time of writing, the future course of the hand count case was unclear. Presumably, Florida's state justices could provide the asked-for information relatively quickly, bringing the issue back to Washington again.

The ruling is far from definitive. "It isn't clear what's going to happen with this," says Stephen Hess, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution.

Nor is it clear whether the Supreme Court decision will affect the arguably more important legal proceeding of Gore's official challenge, or contest, to Florida's now-certified election results.

In effect, the US Supreme Court decision only temporarily voids the decision of the Florida court, essentially giving it a road map for what to do next. …