Florida's elections chief, after omitting new votes from Palm Beach County because a hand recount wasn't finished by yesterday's 5 p.m. deadline, declared Texas Gov. George W. Bush the winner of the state's heatedly contested presidential race and its vital 25 electoral votes - enough to give him the presidency.

Secretary of State Katherine Harris, co-chairwoman of Bush's Florida campaign, joined the two other members of the Republican-controlled state canvassing board in announcing the victory for Bush about 7:30 p.m. yesterday.

That was less than a half-hour after Palm Beach belatedly finished its count, adding 200 votes to Vice President Al Gore's column. In the official tabulation, with nearly 6 million ballots counted, Bush received 2,912,790 votes to Gore's 2,912,253 - a 537-vote difference.

Over cheers heard from outside the state Capitol, Harris said, "On behalf of the state elections canvassing commission ... I hereby declare George W. Bush the winner of Florida's 25 electoral votes for the president of the United States."

About two hours later, Bush claimed the presidency in a speech in Austin, Texas.

"I wish to point out that our American democracy has triumphed once again," said Harris, who has been sued in court, attacked by political allies of Gore and ridiculed on late-night television. "This is a victory for which we can all take a great deal of pride and comfort. The true winner is the rule of law. Thank you and may God bless America."

As Harris read out the vote, televised live from the Capitol, a crowd of Bush supporters gathered in the courtyard outside cheered loudly. Palm Beach County Judge Charles Burton described Harris' action as a "slap in the face" to those who had been recounting 466,000 ballots, and Democrats, led by Gore's running mate, Joseph I. Lieberman, said they would go to court to overturn it.

The Democrats' legal challenge, as provided for in state law, will attack vote tabulations in Palm Beach and two other Florida counties, most crucially in Miami-Dade County, where machines recorded 10,750 ballots with no vote for president out of 654,000 cast. Miami canvassers, saying they could not meet yesterday's deadline, aborted their count at midweek, after finding 157 new Gore votes. Democrats will also challenge Nassau County's refusal to include 51 additional Gore votes, found in a machine recount, in their final tabulations.

The Democrats' plan to seek legal action will keep the vote controversy alive as lawyers for both Gore and Bush prepare for Friday's hearing by the U.S. Supreme Court that will decide whether the Florida Supreme Court went too far in permitting manual recounts and enjoining Harris from certifying the election Nov. 14, as she wanted to do. The state high court had set last night's deadline in a ruling Tuesday.

David Boies, the New York lawyer who heads Gore's legal team on the recount, reminded the public that Gore won the popular vote across the country by some 300,000 votes "no matter what happens."

But to change last night's outcome, the Gore challenge would have to succeed in a trial court and two appellate courts by Dec. 12, when Florida must name its electors.

"Vice President Gore has won the Electoral College, outside of Florida, no matter what happens here," Boies said here yesterday afternoon. "It's critically important that if, as we believe the case to be, Vice President Gore won the vote here in Florida, that that not be nullified because some of those are not counted."

"There's one thing that I am sure of, and that is both sides have enough legal talent to keep this tied up through Christmas," said Bob Crawford, Florida's agriculture commissioner, who signed the certification document with Harris as a member of the state Canvassing Commission. "But one thing the lawyers can't do for us and one thing the courts can't do for us: They can't bring this country together again."

Harris announced the vote totals last night after rejecting an appeal by Palm Beach, a populous and predominantly Democratic area in South Florida, to extend the deadline.

Last night's vote certification was the third time since Election Day that Harris has come before television cameras to announce the breakdown of the Florida vote. The closeness of the race Nov. 7 led to a state-mandated recount, charges of voting irregularities, legal challenges, street protests, counterchallenges and demonstrations and a political war of words that has dominated the airwaves and focused world attention on Florida.

The presidency of the United States hangs in the balance - and will remain so until the U.S. Supreme Court hears a challenge from the Bush camp to the ruling by the Florida high court, which intervened in the election dispute at the request of the Gore camp. The court ruled that Harris had overstepped her bounds Nov. 14 when she refused to accept manual recounts in a certification issued that night.

In a decision considered a win for the Gore camp, the Florida court subsequently allowed the three Florida counties - Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade - to recount by hand their Election Day ballots. But the high court said the recounts must be finished by last night and the amended totals forwarded to Harris' office in Tallahassee.

Gore was relying on those recounts to give him the votes he needed to overcome Bush's narrow, 930-vote lead in the tally of Election Day votes, absentee ballots and overseas ballots. But the Bush camp and its supporters fought back - in court and on the streets of South Florida.

From Tallahassee to Miami, Bush supporters, apparently taking their cue from the Bush camp, protested against the recounts and sought to storm election offices in Miami just minutes before the canvassing board there decided to suspend its recount.

Gore voters, encouraged by the vice president's team, argued just as loudly for a fair and accurate count.

Broward County finished their hand recount and met last night's deadline. Gore picked up 567 votes on Bush in a hand recount of 588,000 ballots.

Palm Beach pushed ahead with the laborious and timely process. But yesterday afternoon, Burton telephoned and faxed a letter to Harris, asking for an extension until 9 a.m. today. Harris refused to budge on the 5 p.m. deadline. About 2 1/2 hours later, Harris led the elections canvassing board in announcing Bush the victor.

The Gore team's legal challenge of the state certification, to be filed in Leon County Circuit Court in Tallahassee, will be focused particularly on compelling the Miami-Dade elections board to complete a hand recount of votes that "was abandoned after a mob intimidated the canvassing board to reverse a decision - made just hours earlier - to complete the count," in documents handed out at Boies' afternoon briefing.

They want the Palm Beach County manual revote to be included, even though it went beyond last night's deadline. They will also argue that:

The 10,000 ballots in Miami-Dade that could not be read by a machine "have never been counted, not even once" and should be added to the total. In addition, 388 votes that had been manually counted (with a net gain of 156 for Gore) should be included.

Nassau County's decision to throw out a mandated state recount of ballots, which cost Gore 51 votes, should be reversed.

About 1,000-2,000 ballots in Palm Beach county were "improperly rejected" by the canvassing board. They also will seek a judicial review of the county board's decision not to recount "indented" or dimpled ballots, which they say is in violation of state law that requires the panel to determine a voter's intent.

Former U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III, speaking for Bush in Tallahassee, attacked the plan for a protracted legal contest last night and suggested, "At some point ... the lawyers must go home."