by Ed Vulliamy
The Observer 
As George W. Bush handed further key government posts to hardline Republican right-wingers, an unofficial recount of votes in Florida appeared to confirm that Bush lost the US presidential election.
Despite the decision by the US Supreme Court to halt the Florida recount in the contested counties, American media organisations, including Knight Ridder — owner of the Miami Herald — have commissioned their own counts, gaining access to the ballots under Freedom of Information legislation. The result so far, with the recounting of so-called ‘undervotes’ in only one county completed by Friday night, indicates that Al Gore is ahead by 140 votes.
Florida’s 25 electoral college votes won Bush the presidency by two seats last Monday after the Supreme Court refused to allow the counting of 45,000 discarded votes. But as the media recount was suspended for Christmas, the votes so far tallied in Lake and Broward counties have Gore ahead in the race for the pivotal state, and hence the White House.
Gore’s lead is expected to soar when counting resumes in the New Year and Miami votes are counted. In a separate exercise, the Miami Herald commissioned a team of political analysts and pollsters to make a statistical calculation based on projections of votes by county, concluding that Gore won the state by 23,000.
The media initiative is likely to bedevil Bush in the weeks to come, thickening the pall of illegitimacy that will hang over his inauguration on 20 January.
It has already led to a face-off between almost all the news media organisations in the state and Bush’s presidential team. In the most extreme example of the Bush camp’s desperation to avoid a recount, the new director of the Environment Protection Agency, Christine Todd Whitman, has proposed that the Florida ballots be sealed for 10 years.
Bush’s spokesman Tucker Eskew dismissed the recount as ‘mischief-making’ and ‘inflaming public passions’ while his brother, Florida governor Jeb Bush, accused the papers of ‘trying to rewrite history’.
Meanwhile, Bush made his boldest ideological statement yet with the appointment of John Ashcroft as Attorney General.
The appointment is especially significant, because as head of the Justice Department Ashcroft would be the man to bring any felony charges against President Bill Clinton over the Lewinsky affair. During the scandal, Ashcroft was among the loudest and shrillest voices for impeachment.
There have been many calls to President-elect Bush to pardon his predecessor as a sign of peace, but he made a point of rejecting them.
Ashcroft lost his Missouri Senate seat to the widow of the state’s popular Democrat governor, Mel Carnahan. From the family of a Pentacostal minister, he is an outspoken social conservative and an ally of the extremist Pat Robertson.
Ashcroft represents a host of militant committees and activist groups, of which the Christian Coalition is most prominent. He is an opponent not only of abortion but even — as he said in one speech — of dancing.