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.
Officials expected to finish their recount late Tuesday or Wednesday, and Gore had already gained more than 100 votes on Bush at midday. Senior Republicans and Democrats alike said Gore could net another 400 to 600 votes in Broward County alone if the dimpled ballots are allowed.
Circuit Judge Robert Rosenberg, a Republican with Democratic ties, was named to the three-person Broward County elections board to replace Jane Carroll, who abruptly quit Monday.
Still further up the coast, Palm Beach County is the key to Gore's recount drive. The vice president had picked up only a handful of votes with one-fifth of the precincts counted, not nearly enough to overtake Bush, according to senior Democrats. Officials there are not considering any ballots with dimpled chads or with chads detached at one corner.
Party lawyer Dennis Newman, overseeing the Palm Beach recount for Gore, said there were 557 ``dimpled'' ballots for Gore and 260 for Bush that hadn't been counted as officials completed work on 176 of the counties 531 precincts. Those figures were not disputed by senior GOP officials.
Democratic sources say they believe there may be hundreds more dimpled ballots in Palm Beach County once all the votes are reviewed, and Bush's team doesn't disagree. Democrats are asking a local court to force the canvassing board to apply a broader standard for accepting votes.
About 1,500 overseas ballots were rejected for having no postmark or other technicalities. Republicans believe a significant number of them were from military personnel and GOP supporters.
In Dallas, three Texas voters sued to block Bush from being president by challenging running mate Dick Cheney's status as a Wyoming resident. The lawsuit was filed hours after a similar lawsuit was dismissed in Florida.
The suit filed Monday claims Cheney is a resident of Texas, and that he and Bush, therefore, shouldn't be awarded the state's 32 electoral votes. The suit cites the 12th Amendment, which prohibits the president and vice president from inhabiting the same state. Cheney was a resident of Texas until he changed his voting registration to Wyoming just before his selection as Bush's running mate.