Democrats want canvassing boards to count hundreds of punch-card ballots with no holes poked out for the presidential race, giving Gore or Bush a vote when an indentation is found next to their name. With the Texas Republican clinging to a 930-vote lead, the vice president's advisers said they almost certainly can't win Florida and the White House unless county officials discern the intent of voters whose ballots were not properly punched.
Gore had picked up 194 votes in recounts by midday Tuesday, which if approved by the courts and added to official state totals would shave Bush's lead to 736 votes out of 6 million cast. Bush has held his own in at least one of the counties, raising fears among Democrats that they will not overtake the Texas governor unless every possible ballot is counted.
The candidates laid low, with the Texas governor playfully placing his hands on a boy's crewcut hair at the state capitol building. ``It gives me good luck to rub your head,'' Bush said. His aides acknowledged for the first time in days that Bush is planning for a potential transition to power. Gore was at his official residence in Washington.
The Florida Supreme Court heard arguments Monday on whether manual recounts should be allowed. No date has been set for the ruling, which Democrats hope will help broaden the standards for determining whether a vote is valid.
``We continue to be concerned about the narrow definition of voter intent,'' said Democratic Party spokesman Bill Buck.
``As far as the numbers, whether Governor Bush or Al Gore benefits is beside the point,'' said Bush spokesman Tucker Eskew. ``The process is flawed, regardless of who benefits.''
Both sides acknowledged Tuesday that Gore stands to pick up hundreds of votes - perhaps as many as 1,500 with the most liberal approval standards. The three counties conducting recounts are predominantly Democratic, and voters from Gore's party historically cast more faulty ballots than their GOP counterparts.
Republicans want the manual recounts stopped and, if not, they fear a broad standard for reviewing the ballots will tilt the race to Gore. Bush's team has an ace in the hole: Hundreds of absentee ballots from military outposts that were rejected on technicalities.
A senior Bush adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Tuesday that Republicans were likely to sue to reinstate rejected absentee ballots from military outposts if the Supreme Court allows recounts to press forward. Democrats waged a county-by-county campaign to toss out the absentee votes, a majority of which were Republican, but rolled back on their objections to the military ballots after coming under heavy criticism.
``Floridians serving in uniform, who may live and work in dangerous locations around the world, should not be disenfranchised because of circumstances requiring the delivery of their ballots without a postmark,'' said Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., at a Florida news conference.
In recounting rooms across the southeast coast of Florida, the procedure varied little Tuesday: Gore ballots went in one pile; Bush ballots in another; questionable ballots, including some with dimples, in yet a third.
Officials on both sides said that absent a court ruling, the questionable ballots may yet settle the nation's presidential election - hundreds of cardboard punchcards, puzzled over by officials on three county canvassing boards.
While awaiting word on the fate of their recounts, local officials have set their own often-shifting standards.
A circuit judge rejected GOP requests to set standards in Miami-Dade for ballot review and search garbage cans for chads - scraps of paper that are dislodged when a ballot is punched. ``I'm not going to manage the minutiae of each ballot,'' Circuit Judge David Tobin said.
Up the coast in Broward County, all ballots with dimpled chads or just one corner of the chad detached are set aside to be reviewed by the canvassing board after all the other ballots are counted.