By Todd Wels

Triplicate staff writer

The tautest Presidential election in history remained that way throughout Wednesday.

Vice President Al Gore and Bush battled through the night, ending with a razor-thin 1,700-vote lead for Bush in the vital battleground state of Florida. That lead, less than half-a-percent, was enough to force a re-count.

Florida officials began recounting nearly 6 million ballots Wednesday to determine the next president, while Democrats and some voters complained of election irregularities. Partial results showed Gore cutting into Bushs lead.

The Florida totals, including all absentee ballots received so far, showed Bush with 2,909,135 votes and Gore with 2,907,351 a difference of 1,784 in a state with 8.75 million registered voters.

After 28 of Floridas 67 counties were recounted Wednesday, Gore had gained 198 votes.

The recount in all 67 counties was triggered by state law because Republican Bush led Democrat Gore by less than one-half of 1 percentage point. State officials said they expect to finish by the end of the day Thursday.

Local reaction

Del Norte County Supervisor Clyde Eller, who faced stiff competition in his first election to the board said he did not envy Bush or Gore their prolonged waiting period, though he called the wait for returns a positive anxiety.

In his case, that anxiety paid off.

What it would be like going through that anticipation and coming out on the losing end, youll have to ask somebody else, he said.

Current School Board member and former aide to U.S. Rep. Frank Riggs (R-Calif.) Bob Berkowitz also knows about the rigors of campaigning.

Berkowitz said he believes the current impasse in Florida basically proves that the system works in that there has been no violence, and that the transfer of power will still be carried out in an orderly manner.

America is healthy

Democrat Martha McClure concurred, saying that Tuesdays election was a sign that the American democratic system was still hale and hearty.

Because this is America, nobody died, she said. Thats whats important.

Democratic Central Committee Chairman Kevin Hendrick said he was tired Wednesday, after getting only two hours of sleep Tuesday night.

Hendrick said he hopes there will be some lessons learned from the close race.

We wont know until its done, and I think the media has learned about calling things before theyre done, he said.

In addition to the recount, Florida elections supervisors also are waiting for an undetermined number of overseas ballots, primarily from military personnel and their families. The state allows 10 days after the election for the ballots to come in.

The state counted about 2,300 overseas ballots in the 1996 election more than the margin separating Gore and Bush this time so there is a remote possibility that those ballots alone could change the outcome.

Pinellas County, which includes St. Petersburg, will have to redo its count because a poll worker inadvertently failed to run an unknown number of ballots through its computer Wednesday, county Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark said. The county retracted its original announcement that Gore had gained 404 votes and Bush dropped by 61 votes in its recount.

The scrutiny was intense because Florida and its 25 electoral votes will decide the next president. In an added twist, the states governor, Jeb Bush, is the Republican nominees younger brother.

We thought it would be close. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine it would be this close, Jeb Bush told reporters Wednesday.

Some counts completed

Some counties completed the count Wednesday and forwarded results to Tallahassee for certification by Republican Secretary of State Katherine Harris and state elections director Clay Roberts, a Republican appointee. Jeb Bush said he recused himself.

Although both candidates typically pick up votes in a recount, veterans of the process said it is unusual for one side to pick up enough votes to make a difference in the outcome.

Two former secretaries of state Warren Christopher for Gore and James A. Baker III for Bush were heading monitoring teams sent to Florida on Wednesday.

Even before the recount, the Gore campaign was already eyeing legal options for forcing a new vote in Palm Beach County, where confusion over how to fill out the ballot may have boosted the tally for Pat Buchanan, a senior Gore adviser said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Voter complaints

In Florida and elsewhere, Democrats grumbled about long lines at the polls, reports that ballots were late in arriving at polling places and other possible irregularities.

Weve received literally thousands of telephone calls and inquiries and reports of irregularities like ballots appearing and disappearing, voter intimidation, and the totals of this election sort of mysteriously disappearing and growing overnight, state Democratic Party chairman Bob Poe said.

Jesse Jackson said he got calls on Election Day complaining that blacks had difficulty voting in Florida and other Southern states. He said some voters were told there were no more ballots, or that polls were closed.

What we need is not just a recount by hand, but also a thorough investigation, Jackson said.

Separately, Democratic officials and voters complained about the way ballots in Palm Beach County were arranged. Voters punched holes in the middle of the ballot, while candidates were alternately listed to the left and then the right. County officials also said more than 19,000 ballots in the presidential race were tossed out because more than one candidate was picked.

Odd ballots

Some Gore supporters said they feared they mistakenly voted for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan. Gore carried the county by more than 110,000 votes, but the 3,407 votes for Buchanan were by far the most of any Florida county, and almost 20 percent of his total vote in the state.

Republicans said the ballot was approved by Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Theresa LePore, a Democrat.

Jeb Bush said he has seen nothing that indicates fraud, and pledged a fair recount.

Voter fraud in our state is a felony, and guilty parties will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, he said.

Local absentees

In Del Norte County on Wednesday, County Clerk Vicki Frazier spent much of the afternoon counting local absentee ballots, which could have changed the outcome of the Crescent City City Council race, though they were statistically unlikely to do so.

It depends on how many are in the city, she said.

According to Frazier, of the 250-300 late absentee votes, there were at least 50 from within the Crescent City city limits.

It would take 57 additional votes for fourth-place finisher George Mayer to unseat third-place finisher Herbert Kolodner, which is statistically very unlikely, but not completely impossible.

Frazier said absentee voting is on the rise both in Del Norte County and the nation at large. In nearby Oregon, all elections are now conducted via absentee ballot.

Its easier to sit at home and read the propositions and to vote at home, she said, adding that absentee ballots are especially popular with senior citizens, since seniors are more likely to have difficulty going to the polls.

Despite the presidential race ups and downs, Hendrick said he was still happy that Gore carried California, and was pleased several other Democrats, such as U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, Assemblywoman Virginia Strom-Martin and Senator Dianne Feinstein had been re-elected.

Still hoping

Despite the fact that Bush had initially won Florida even if it was by a slim margin Hendrick remains hopeful for Gores election.

I still have some hope that this may happen, he said.

Berkowitz believes those hopes will be in vain.

Youve got to figure that he (Bush) has a 1,700-vote lead, he said.

Regardless of what current exit polls show, McClure said she believed former consumer advocate and Green Party candidate Ralph Nader had a pronounced impact on the race.

Lets face it, this country is a two-party system with a third-party influence, and we certainly felt that third-party influence, she said.

I think it was a definite influence, agreed Del Norte County Republican Central Committee Chairman Scott Feller. However, he added, even without Naders influence, he believed Bush would have beaten Gore.

The Associated Press contributed to this story