Portrait of a Recount: Doughnuts, Lawsuits

It's recount season!

Ten days after the voters went to the polls, there are still congressional races that are up for grabs.

Voters in districts from Massachusetts to California are going to have to wait even longer to find out who represents them in Congress. None of these races will change the balance of power in Washington, where Republicans will retain control of both chambers of Congress. But for the incumbents, challengers, and loyal staffers, it can be a tense process.

In some cases, the recount is automatically triggered if the candidates are within spitting distance of each other. In yet other states, candidates must ask for an official recount, paid for out of their pocket. Some candidates are mulling over court challenges.

Behind many of the close races are absentee ballots, or "vote by mail," schemes. In Washington State, for example, of 250,000 votes cast, 100,000 were absentee ballots. As of Wednesday, there were still 15,000 votes to count. Freshman Rep. Jack Metcalf (R) was leading challenger Kevin Quigley by 641 votes. The final tabulation is not scheduled until Nov. 19. But the process could drag on to mid-December.

The mail voting is changing the way campaigns are fought. In Arizona, the race between freshman Republican Rep. J.D. Hayworth and Democratic challenger Steve Owens was not decided until Wednesday, when Hayworth could claim victory by about 2,400 votes - after 40,000 absentee ballots were counted in Maricopa County. "You simply cannot follow a 10-year-old playbook of conserving all your money to the very end and then putting on a barrage of TV commercials when such a sizable portion of the electorate is casting its votes before they see your commercials," says Bob Grossfeld, a Phoenix political consultant.

Other races were just plain close. That's what happened in Pennsylvania's 13th Congressional District. On election night, freshman Rep. Jon Fox (R) led Democratic challenger Joseph Hoeffel III by 10 votes. By Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Fox's lead was 89 votes. Fox faced an uphill battle in the race since President Clinton carried Montgomery County by 23,000 votes.

As the county officials tabulated the absentee ballots, they were watched by representatives of both Fox and Mr. Hoeffel, plus a delegation from the House Oversight Committee. "Both sides consumed all the doughnuts present in a bipartisan way," recounts James Maza, a lawyer who represents Hoeffel. "Everyone watches everyone else, so if you see someone staring at a ballot, you go and stare too."

Yet even that race may not be over. Since both candidates were pro-choice on the abortion issue, some pro-life voters did not pull their levers for a congressman. On the basis of a Pennsylvania state law, the election board has decided to cast those ballots on the basis of intent. For example, if the voters voted for Republicans, the election board has given the vote to Fox.

Some candidates have already asked for a recount. That's the case with Rep. Peter Torkildsen (R) of Massachusetts, who lost to Democratic challenger John Tierney by several hundred votes. The recount won't begin until Dec. 4. Rep. Bob Dornan (R) of California, who appears to have lost to challenger Loretta Sanchez by about 1,000 votes, has also indicated he will ask for a recount and may even call for a congressional investigation.

The process of recounting can be hard on the campaign staffs. A Fox staffer describes his fingernails as "tiny little nubs." But Fox himself says he was not worried, even though he was in the closest race in the nation. "I believe in prayer," he says, "and the prayers were answered."

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