"I don't know what the final results will show," Gore said Wednesday night as he suggested a statewide hand recount of Florida's 6 million votes as a way to achieve a "fair and final" result without further legal maneuvering.
"The outcome of this election will not be the result of deals or efforts to mold public opinion," Bush countered a few hours later in rejecting the vice president's suggestions. Hand recounting, which Gore wants, "introduces human error and politics into the vote-counting process," Bush said.
Bush holds a 300-vote lead over his rival in Florida, the state that will hand one man or the other a majority of the Electoral College and the keys to the White House.
The dueling appearances by the two White House rivals capped a tumultuous day in which Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris announced that she would not accept the results of any hand recounts when it comes time to certify final totals on Saturday. Only absentee ballots from overseas, due in by midnight Friday, will be rolled into the totals, she said.
Gore's lawyers said they would challenge her decision Thursday.
With Gore urging them on, officials in Broward County said in advance they intended to continue recounting 588,000 ballots by hand Thursday. Just up the Florida coast, Palm Beach County officials said they too intended to review ballots cast on Election Day.
Just over the legal horizon was the U.S. Supreme Court, and already there were predictions the election to pick the nation's 43rd president would wind up there. "Anything this important is going to find its way to the most important court in the land," former Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming, a longtime friend of Bush's running mate, Dick Cheney, said in an interview.
Gore and Bush made separate television appearances Wednesday evening, the vice president at his official residence in Washington, the Texan at the governor's mansion in Austin. Both men strove for a statesmanlike presentation, and maneuvered for maximum television exposure.
Gore went first, in the evening news hour in the East, standing in front of a mantle with a family photo visible in the background. "We need a resolution that is fair and final. We need to move expeditiously to the most complete and accurate count that is possible," he said.
Suggesting expanded recounts, he said, "Machines can sometimes misread or fail to detect the way ballots are cast. And when there are serious doubts, checking the machine count with a careful hand count is accepted far and wide as the best way to know the true intentions of the voters."
He suggested he and Bush meet immediately, "not to negotiate, but to improve the tone of our dialogue in America." And he proposed a second meeting, after the election, "to reaffirm our national unity."
In his own remarks a few hours later, Bush stood in the living room of the governor's residence. "Not for...Vice President Gore, or for me, but for America, this process must have a point of conclusion, a moment when America and the world know who is the next president," he said. He referred to the deadlines contained in Florida law, the last of which, he said, occurs Friday, when overseas absentee ballots are due.
"The way to conclude this election in a fair and accurate and final way is for the state of Florida to count the remaining overseas ballots, add them to the certified vote, and announce the results as required by Florida law," he said.
A Republican whom Gore allies have sharply criticized in recent days, she filed papers with the Florida Supreme Court early in the day seeking a halt to the manual recounts.
Rejected there by a unanimous procedural ruling that did not address the merits of her case, she announced hours later she would not accept the results of any hand recounts when it comes time to certify the vote totals.
She said four counties had petitioned for permission to update their totals: Democratic-leaning Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade cited hand recounts, while GOP-leaning Collier cited other, unstated reasons.
"The reasons given in the requests are insufficient to warrant waiver of the unambiguous filing deadline imposed by the Florida Legislature," she said, without further elaboration.
She noted a court appeal was possible, and Gore aides said they were ready to oblige.
With all the talk of constitutional issues and the importance of the presidency, it fell to local officials to grapple with the mundane, but no less important, issues.
In Palm Beach County, Circuit Judge Jorge Labarga ruled that "dimpled chad" ballots--cases in which punchcard ballots are clearly indented but not perforated--should count as votes.
But he said members of the county canvassing board may decide for themselves whether the dimple constitutes a vote.