WASHINGTON -- Step by incredible step, the overtime struggle for the presidency is inching toward the constitutional confrontation both sides declare they do not want. But stopping short of one will become increasingly difficult should the struggle go to court as the Democrats intend.
The rhetoric is hardening, by proxy now as Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore wait for the verdict the voters did not clearly deliver.
The Florida recount probably won't suffice, with the Gore campaign planning to wait at least until Nov. 17, the deadline for counting of overseas absentee ballots mailed back to Florida.
''We don't think we're on the edge of a constitutional crisis and we don't intend to try and provoke a constitutional crisis,'' said Warren Christopher, the former secretary of state representing Gore in the Florida recount.
James A. Baker III, also a former secretary of state, there for Bush, said the impasse should be settled without delay. He said it is ''important that we complete this, because the presidential election, of course, is on hold, and that affects the position of the United States in a number of ways, particularly internationally.''
Christopher called that a self-serving myth. ''The presidency goes on until Jan. 20 in a vigorous way and none of our allies are in any doubt as to who's in charge of the government until Jan. 20.'' President Clinton is.
The two former diplomats were not sounding very diplomatic Thursday in the tense standoff over the 25 Florida electoral votes that will award the White House.
For the present, the uncertainty is unsettling, but no crisis. The stock market dropped sharply on Thursday, perhaps because of it, but then largely bounced back.
''We do not want delay,'' said William Daley, Gore's campaign chairman. ''What we want, however, is democracy fulfilled.''
He said that means Gore. The Republicans say it means Bush. Neither party is going to yield to anything short of decisive numbers, and getting to them will be a challenge. Bush's Florida edge had dwindled to only about 350 votes out of nearly 6 million cast as the recounting continued Thursday.
Should it vanish, the Republicans surely would raise their own challenges.
Daley said the Gore campaign already is working ''in support of legal actions'' in Florida focusing on what they insist was a flawed and illegal ballot in Palm Beach County that led to invalidation of the votes of about 19,000 people there. He said the confusing ballot also led many voters to punch in votes for Pat Buchanan when they were trying to vote for Gore, and contended that cost the vice president about 2,000 votes.
''I would assume the courts will take a serious look at what may be an injustice unparalleled in our history,'' Daley said.
Once begun, a court struggle would mean appeals by the losing side, and the process could escalate to the Supreme Court. That would engage the judicial branch at the center of a case to settle who would head the executive branch.
Even then, the point of real crisis wouldn't come until Inauguration Day, when Clinton is out at noon, Jan. 20, 2001, and a new president must be in. There is no reasonable way this impasse can take that long, especially given the fact that all parties know the deadline. But reason has not prevailed yet.
Daley said it should be resolved well before then. Baker said it should be resolved now. ''They put a demand for finality ahead of the pursuit of fairness,'' Daley said.
But there are Democratic and Republican versions of fairness.
Daley said the Democrats were collecting accounts of other irregularities in Florida, and were demanding a hand count of ballots in four counties.
In Iowa, where Bush lost by fewer than 5,000 votes, Republicans were considering seeking a recount. Spokesman Ari Fleischer said they might also seek a recount in Wisconsin, Gore's by just over 6,000 votes.
Not since 1876 had a presidential election been so contested after the votes were cast. Republican Rutherford B. Hayes won that only after an electoral commission set up by Congress -- and tilted his political way -- awarded him the White House by one electoral vote. Democrat Samuel Tilden was counted out in three disputed Southern states -- one of them Florida, where a Republican election board overturned his narrow lead.
All that was settled only two days before what was then Inauguration Day, March 4.
Hayes was one of the three presidents who lost the popular vote but won in the Electoral College. It last happened in 1888. This time, Gore is leading the popular vote by just over 200,000 out of more than 100 million ballots cast Tuesday.
Walter R. Mears has reported on Washington and national politics for The Associated Press for more than 35 years.
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