WEST PALM BEACH, Fla., Nov. 15 (AP) - A federal appeals court in Atlanta agreed Wednesday to hear arguments on George W. Bush's attempt to shut down Democratic-prompted manual recounts in Florida's contested presidential election.

The court issued its announcement at the same time Bush and presidential rival Al Gore were urging the Florida Supreme Court to rule on the legality of the disputed recounting in heavily Democratic counties.

Also Wednesday, a judge ruled that Palm Beach County elections officials cannot arbitrarily toss out all ballots where the presidential choice was not completely punched.

Circuit Judge Jorge Labarga ruled that so-called ``dimpled chad'' - where the punchcard was not perforated, but was clearly indented - should be considered. But he said the county canvassing board may decide on individual ballots whether the dimple constitutes a vote.

``No vote is to be declared invalid or void if there was a clear intention of the voter,'' Labarga said after a 90-minute hearing in West Palm Beach.

Democrats sought the ruling, hoping that thousands of previously rejected ballots could be counted.

``The judge granted exactly the relief which we sought,'' said Greg Barnhart, a lawyer for the Democrats. ``If they express a vote, the canvassing board needs to count that vote for whichever candidate it was cast. .... There was an inequity, and he corrected that.''

Earlier in the day, Republicans contended that Palm Beach County Commissioner Carol Roberts poked, twisted and manipulated ballots during a Saturday hand recount of ballots from four precincts. They asked her to step down from the election canvassing board.

She said Wednesday she had been ``fair and impartial'' and rejected the Republican demand to recuse herself.

``As a member of this board, I have been and continue to be fair,'' she said.

Meanwhile, Labarga disclosed Wednesday that he served on the county GOP executive committee and was a former president of the Cuba-American Republican Club. He also said he had attended rallies for GOP Gov. Jeb Bush, the brother of Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush, but said none of this would prevent him from fairly hearing election-related lawsuits.

Roberts approved several ballots displaying only minor indentations while refusing to count ballots with partially punched holes, according to a letter to the canvassing board from Republican lawyer James Higgins.

``The Republicans filed a written request that Ms. Roberts should recuse herself from the board. They are alleging she is biased,'' said County Judge Charles Burton, chairman of the three-member canvassing board.

He read a statement from Roberts Wednesday in which she said the ballots were recounted ``in full view of observers from both parties and cameras from all over the world,'' that all questions were decided by the three members of the board and that no complaints were voiced at the time.

The Palm Beach recount was stalled again Wednesday as board members waited for Labarga's ruling on which manner of indentations or partial punch-outs should count as votes.

Roberts voted against delaying the count again. Burton and Supervisor of Elections Theresa LePore voted in favor of the delay.

``We decided that we would wait because we need clear direction on what to do,'' Burton said.

``On the one hand, we're trying to move forward,'' he said. ``On the other, it almost seems to be musical courts. We're going from the next courtroom to the next courtroom to the next courtroom.''

Also Wednesday, Florida's secretary of state asked the state's top court to delay any hand counting of ballots and consolidate lawsuits in the chaotic vote count that has left the presidential election hanging in the balance for more than a week.

Katherine Harris, a Republican, filed the petition with the state Supreme Court as officials in heavily Democratic Palm Beach County gathered to begin a recount that she has opposed. She earlier gave all counties until 2 p.m. EST Wednesday to justify to her why they should be allowed to conduct further counting past a 5 p.m. Tuesday deadline.

After the deadline, the state said the returns gave the election - and perhaps the White House - to Bush by 300 votes, an outcome hotly contested by Democratic lawyers who have been stepping up their legal fight.

In her petition, Harris said local canvassing boards should stop any effort to hand count ballots ``pending resolution as to whether any basis exists to modify the certified results after the statutory deadline for submission of returns.''

She also asked that the flurry of legal actions around the state be transferred to a court in Tallahassee, the state capital.

``Without question, this court must make it clear that the election of the president and vice president is not a matter of local pleasure,'' the petition said. ``It is, at the least, a statewide matter of concern. This court must assume control over this litigation to preserve its ability to establish standards and to protect the voters of the state.''

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