TALLAHASSEE, Fla., Nov. 20 (AP) - With the presidency in the balance, Florida's Supreme Court peppered lawyers for Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore with questions Monday on the legality of manual recounts under way in selected Democratic-leaning counties.

``We have a longstanding policy ... that says the real interests here are the voters,'' declared Chief Justice Charles T. Wells, who asked repeatedly how long the state had to certify a winner and still have its voice heard when the Electoral College meets to pick a president.

Democrats said Dec. 12 was the answer, six days before the Electoral College meets. But Joe Klock, representing Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, said she was bound by a state law that required her to certify a winner by seven days after the election.

Earlier Monday, a circuit court judge refused to order a new round of voting in Palm Beach County, where some citizens complained they were confused by the ``butterfly ballot.''

Circuit Judge Jorge Labarga said he did not have the authority to order a Palm Beach County revote. Several voters had filed suit for a new county election, saying they meant to vote for Gore but may have voted twice or for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan because of the ballot's design.

Florida's high court took up the broad legal fight in mid-afternoon.

In dueling court filings Sunday, lawyers for Bush argued that Florida's deadline for counting ballots is long passed, while attorneys for Gore argued that some counties deserve more time to complete hand tallies.

The seven Supreme Court justices were being asked to settle several key questions in the unresolved presidential election:

  • When should manual recounts be done and how should they be done?
  • Should the results of manual recounts be included in the final Florida election tally?
  • Did a state election official act properly to impose and enforce a Nov. 14 deadline for reporting vote results?
  • If the court says Secretary of State Katherine Harris was wrong, the counts could go on and Gore could pick up votes.

    If he loses in that tally, his lawyers could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

    Some Gore supporters accuse Harris, a Republican who helped run Bush's Florida campaign, of partisan motives. Republicans countered that Harris was right to stick to the deadline set by state law.

    On Sunday, lawyers for Gore asked the court to set a generous standard for deciding what voters really meant when they punched ballots in the disputed presidential election.

    Lawyers for Bush asked the same court to call an end to the election recount and uphold the statutory deadline for counties to report their results.

    Meanwhile, manual ballot recounts continued in Palm Beach and Broward counties, with Gore picking up modest gains in unofficial results. A hand recount in Miami-Dade also began and was scheduled to continue until Dec. 1.

    Gore's lawyers argued that previous state court rulings have established the rules for discerning the will of the voter in close elections.

    Lawyers for Bush asked the same court to call an end to the presidential election recount and uphold the statutory deadline for counties to report their results.

    The issue, which Gore's lawyers have not addressed at length before, became important because the Democrats worry that the strictest interpretation of how to approve or reject ballots will deny votes to Gore.

    Gore's filing cited the law that provides for manual recounts in close elections. It noted that if vote-checkers cannot determine the winner on a particular ballot, the local elections board should ``determine the voter's intent.''

    The problem comes when those election boards decide how to do that, with some opting for stricter standards than others, Gore's lawyers said.

    ``Unfortunately, among the other unusual events of the last two weeks, there has been a concerted effort to induce canvassing boards to apply a more narrow ... standard,'' they wrote. They want virtually any marked ballot to count, whether the card is punched through or not.

    The issue only becomes essential if the Florida court allows hand counts to continue.

    Bush wants the court to end ballot recounts in large, Democratic-leaning Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.

    If original results from those counties stand, Bush wins Florida and with it the presidential election. Gore hopes the recounts will turn up enough votes to erase the Texas governor's 930-vote lead.

    The Republican candidate argued that election officials in the three south Florida counties could have conducted recounts requested by Democrats and still met the seven-day deadline.

    ``It would be highly inequitable to keep the state and the nation on hold to finish a manual recount when the responsible officials failed expeditiously even to begin the process,'' Bush's lawyers wrote.

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