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MIAMI (Reuters) - President Barack Obama held a narrow but apparently insurmountable lead in Florida's slow-moving presidential race on Thursday, putting him on track toward a clean sweep of the U.S. battleground states and a boost in his Electoral College vote total from Tuesday's election.
The vote count in what one official dubbed Florida's "perfect storm" election was still under way on Thursday.
As of Thursday afternoon, Obama, a Democrat, had 49.9 percent of the statewide vote versus 49.24 percent for Republican Mitt Romney, according to the Florida Division of Elections.
But 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 55,852 votes separate 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 Florida's 29 Electoral College votes, which was the biggest prize of any of the nine U.S. swing states.
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 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.
In comments in Orlando on Thursday, Republican Governor Rick Scott refused to accept any responsibility for Florida's failure, yet again, to hold an election that was free of voting issues and controversy.
Scott's decision not to extend early voting ahead of Election Day, after it was cut back from 14 to eight days by Scott and the Republican-controlled legislature, has been cited as one cause of exceedingly long voter lines at many precincts throughout the state on Tuesday.
"We did the right thing," Scott told Reuters.
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."
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez has cited the length and complexity of the ballot, reduced early voting opportunities and an unexpectedly large volume of absentee ballots for many of the election-related problems in his county, which accounts for about 10 percent of Florida nearly 12 million registered voters.
The vote count in Miami-Dade, excluding provisional ballots still pending, finally ended on Thursday.
"This is what you would call a perfect storm down here in Florida in terms of our elections," Gimenez told CNN. "Without a doubt we had some operational issues that we have to take care of," he said.
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 the state where ballot gridlock seems to happen every four years.
He said one problem that needs to be addressed swiftly is the fact that county supervisors of elections in Florida win their jobs through partisan elections, rather than, as in California, are professionals hired for their ability to deal with complex logistical maneuvers.
As a former health care executive, Scott prides himself on his record a hard-charging former CEO who made a fortune running one of the biggest hospital chains in the nation. But the lack of a businesslike approach to elections, the ritual at the heart of American democracy, is all too apparent in Florida, Stewart said.
"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 Jackie Frank