MIAMI (Reuters) - Florida's Democratic Party declared victory for President Barack Obama in the closely divided battleground state on Thursday, as he clung to a narrow but apparently insurmountable lead in the glacially slow tallying of votes.
If Obama wins Florida, it will add to his Electoral College margin and he will have won all of the key U.S. swing states.
"On behalf of Florida Democrats, I wish President Barack Obama congratulations on his re-election and on his winning Florida's 29 electoral votes," Rod Smith, chairman of the Florida Democratic Party, said in a statement.
In a tacit concession, Republican Party of Florida spokesman Brian Burgess said in an email that he and other Romney supporters were "obviously not happy with the result" in the Sunshine State.
"But given the wave that we saw all over the country, we're glad that we gave them enough of a fight in Florida to prolong the battle here as long as we did," Burgess said.
As of early Thursday evening, Obama had 49.92 percent of the statewide vote versus 49.22 percent for Romney, according to the Florida Division of Elections.
Two of the three counties where ballots were still being tallied, Broward and Palm Beach, are heavily Democratic. The third county, Duval, has more registered Democrats than Republicans but has traditionally leaned Republican in presidential contests.
Just 58,100 votes separated the two candidates, but that was far more than in 2000, when George W. Bush won Florida by 537 votes and captured the White House.
The glacially slow vote count in Florida has already made it the brunt of jokes on late-night television and conjured up ugly memories of the situation 12 years ago, when Florida was the cause of electoral gridlock.
This time, the Sunshine State almost seemed irrelevant since Obama handily won re-election without its 29 Electoral College votes - the biggest prize of any of the nine key U.S. swing states.
HIGHER ELECTORAL VOTE COUNT
No officials were willing on Thursday to predict exactly when the race in the fourth most populous U.S. state, which has a total of 67 counties, would be officially declared as decided. But barring any big surprises, Obama looked set to get a bump from Florida that would lift his electoral vote count to 332 over 206 for Romney.
"It's appalling that two days after the election, Florida was not able to report our presidential election results," Smith said in his statement.
"This embarrassment lays at the feet of Governor Rick Scott, who made a decision to cut early voting in half and continually refused to extend early-voting hours in light of the record turnout," Smith said.
In comments earlier in Orlando on Thursday, the Republican governor adamantly refused to accept any responsibility for Florida's failure to hold an election that was free of controversy.
Scott's decision not to extend early voting, after it was cut back from 14 to eight days by the Republican-controlled legislature, has been cited by many Floridians as a cause of exceedingly long voter lines on Tuesday.
Scott told Reuters "We did the right thing" when asked about the decision, which many saw as a move to blunt voter turnout for Obama.
The length of ballots, which included 11 proposed state constitutional amendments backed by the legislature, has also been blamed for long lines at polling places and delays in tallying final results. But Scott said: "The amendments don't go through the governor. The amendments only go through the legislature."
Massachusetts Institute of Technology political science professor Charles Stewart, a co-director of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project, said there were many issues that need to be addressed in Florida, where ballot gridlock seems to happen every four years.
He said one problem is the fact that county elections supervisors in Florida win their jobs through partisan elections, rather than being professionals hired for their ability to deal with complex logistical maneuvers, as in California.
"There are other states with close races and they don't seem to have these problems. There are other states with even longer ballots and they don't have these problems," Stewart said.
"When the same mistakes and the same problems come in year after year after year, it tells you that just the basics of crowd management and customer service are not being applied," he said. (Reporting by Tom Brown in Miami and Barbara Liston in Orlando; editing by Philip Barbara)
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