WASHINGTON, Nov. 14 (AP) -- One week into America's election limbo, Florida counties officially reported their presidential votes after a Tuesday deadline was upheld by a state judge, even as thousands of disputed ballots were counted by hand into the night. Democrats rejected George W. Bush's potential compromise to cease the ballot-by-ballot fight for the White House.

"When is it going to end?" asked Bush aide James A. Baker III. There was no answer in sight.

With lawyers and judges front and center in the presidential election, nerves began to fray and adjectives failed to serve.

"It's like the seventh day of being held hostage," stammered Jeb Bush, governor of Florida and the harried brother of the GOP presidential hopeful.

The latest margin for Bush was 286 votes, according to an informal AP tally.

Judge Terry Lewis ruled that counties could file new vote totals after the state's 5 p.m. Tuesday deadline to certify ballots. He gave Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a Bush supporter, authority to reject or approve them using "the proper exercise and discretion."

It was a setback for the vice president, who wanted a clear order lifting the Tuesday deadline, but his lawyers found solace in ruling language urging Harris to consider "all appropriate facts and circumstances."

Gore decided to hold off an appeal and press forward with recounts in four Democratic-leaning counties. He hopes Harris will approve the hand-counted ballots and is prepared to appeal if she does not.

Officials in Volusia County pledged an appeal, saying they needed more time to complete their hand recount.

"If the secretary of state arbitrarily refuses to accept the amended returns based on the recount and violates what this court has ruled ... which is to accept those results unless she has good reason not to, then we will be back in court," said a new member of Gore's massive legal team, David Boies.

A lawyer for Harris said if updated totals are submitted after Tuesday's deadline, "It is then in her discretion to consider all the facts and circumstances and she will certainly do that." The spokeswoman, Donna Blanton, said the outcome of the statewide election should be known on Saturday, when all overseas absentee ballots have been counted.

But she left open the issue that could determine who becomes the nation's 43rd president--offering no definitive guidance on the fate of hand recounts in progress in scattered counties at Gore's request.

The race tumbled to the courts after a statewide machine recount trimmed Bush's lead from 1,784 votes to 388, prompting Gore to push for painstaking manual recounts and Bush to fight them in courts of law and public opinion.

Officials in two counties tabulated ballots by hand Tuesday, with action in two other jurisdictions pending.

Shoving matches and shouting fits punctuated the action inside and outside Florida's courtrooms. Jeb Bush said things were getting "nerve-racking" throughout his state.

"I can't even walk around outside now," he said at a town hall meeting 60 miles northwest of Tallahassee.

With the razor-thin lead in ballots counted so far, Baker said presidential candidate Bush would accept the results of manual recounts collected by close of business Tuesday and the overseas absentee ballots due in Friday. Both sides should also drop their dueling lawsuits, Baker said.

"It truly was not a proposal," sniffed Gore campaign chairman William Daley during a visit to Capitol Hill to calm Democrats leaders. "It was strictly, in my opinion, an inaccurate description of the laws of Florida. The laws of Florida will be determined by the courts."

Both Bush and Gore were lying low. Gore called for calm on Monday but declined to field reporters' questions. Bush monitored the legal fight from his ranch in Texas for a third straight day and expected to talk to journalists Wednesday.

The presidents-in-waiting are trying to strike a balance between their desire to be seen as prepared--and a fear that they will appear overeager.

Gore leads in the nationwide popular vote by just 200,000 votes out of 100 million cast, but the Electoral College tally is so close that whoever takes Florida almost certainly will win the White House. Only three times in the nation's history has a candidate won the popular vote but lost the presidential race, the last time in 1888.

Not counting Florida, Bush carried 29 states for 246 electoral votes. Gore counted 19 states plus the District of Columbia for 262 electoral votes, with 270 needed for victory. Gore led in New Mexico but the state remained too close to call.

Republicans have talked about challenging Gore's victories in close-voting states other than Florida, but the tactic would be a long shot. A new poll Tuesday said voters believe the results of the recount in Florida should determine the next president.

The Bush campaign has said for days it would accept the results of absentee ballots and those certified by Tuesday. Baker threw in the manual counts in a further effort to portray Bush as the only candidate who wanted the issue resolved quickly.

"It would give some degree of finality," Baker said.

He said Bush was taking a risk because manual counts could erode his lead. But Republicans have closely monitored the recount process and knew there was little chance that Gore could overtake the Texan by Tuesday night.

"That's like offering sleeves from his vest," Christopher cracked.

Christopher appealed to the public's sense of fair play.

"I see a yearning in the country for the vote to be correctly counted, and I think we're going down that path. That's what I see the country most interested in," he said.

Legal and political operatives zipped in and out of Florida courtrooms, while ballot counters plodded into the evening. With developments coming rapidly, confusion reigned.

In other developments:

  • The Bush camp filed a notice of appeal in Atlanta to reserve its right to challenge a federal judge who refused Monday to block the manual counts.
  • Gore regained the lead in New Mexico's seesawing race for 5 electoral votes after officials announced that they had misread absentee results.
  • The Democratic Party filed a motion in Circuit Court arguing that Broward County should be ordered to conduct a full hand count of its 588,000 ballots. Election authorities in the county decided to add four more votes to Gore - votes that turned up during a hand count of three precincts on Monday.
  • A circuit judge said the recount in Palm Beach County could continue, and rejected Bush's effort to transfer the case to Tallahassee. County officials were deciding whether to begin counting again.
  • Officials in Miami-Dade County began a sample hand recount of 5,871 ballots in three overwhelmingly Democratic precincts.
  • In Volusia County, where workers began hand counting some 184,000 ballots Sunday, officials said they would be unable to finish by 5 p.m. but would send partial results to the state.
  • The U.S. Postal Service was expediting delivery of military overseas ballots to assure they arrive in county election departments before Friday's deadline.
  • Also, numerous voters have sued separately over alleged voting irregularities in Palm Beach. Celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz represents some of them, and Gore's team is helping collect affidavits from voters with complaints.

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