A Dec. 7 Metro article incorrectly said that a two-day recount of the votes cast in the Virginia attorney general's race would start Dec. 21. It will start Dec. 20, and the results will be checked by a judicial panel Dec. 21. (Published 12/8/2005)

A statewide recount of almost 2 million ballots cast for attorney general last month will take place over two days starting Dec. 21, a judge decided Tuesday.

With only 323 votes dividing the two major-party candidates, the recount to determine the winner will occur barely three weeks before the scheduled inauguration.

Republican State Sen. Robert F. McDonnell (Virginia Beach), who has been certified as the winner, sat in the front row Tuesday in Richmond Circuit Court as Judge Theodore J. Markow set the recount date. McDonnell has claimed the mantle of victory and has started interviewing and hiring staff members.

Democratic Del. R. Creigh Deeds (Bath), who trails by a margin of just 0.017 percent and requested the recount, was not present. He was at his farm "focusing on the transition," a spokesman said.

The Nov. 8 race for attorney general produced the closest statewide election in Virginia. Under state law, the commonwealth pays for recounts when a margin is less than half a percentage point.

The McDonnell camp is pinning its hopes on history, as suggested by the last statewide recount. In the 1989 gubernatorial race, a recount changed an initial 6,000-vote margin by only 113 votes.

"There may be some nominal shifts," McDonnell told reporters after the hearing. "But I'm confident the winner will stay the same."

Deeds and his aides say that with so few votes dividing the two major candidates in the election, neither man has reason for overconfidence.

"There's only one guarantee on recount day," said Mark Bergman, a spokesman for Deeds. "Votes will change."

A second hearing is scheduled for Friday before Markow and two other circuit court judges appointed by the state Supreme Court to supervise the recount. The purpose of that hearing is to determine exactly how they are going to recount the votes.

Attorneys for both McDonnell and Deeds agree that handwritten ballots are the most susceptible to human error and should be recounted by hand, as they were on election night. Only one county in the state uses paper ballots. But paper is also used for absentee, provisional and curbside ballots, cast by voters unable to leave their cars.

Deeds's attorneys also want all votes cast on optical scanners and punch cards -- about 500,000 in all, his spokesman said -- to be re-run through the tabulating machines.

McDonnell's camp considers some of that excessive. Not all ballots have problems with clarity or legibility, his attorney said Tuesday. In remarks to reporters after the hearing, McDonnell said state recount laws were rewritten after the 2000 presidential election were intended to set "some limits, so it's not a free-for-all."

"We just want the statute followed," he said.

Whatever the method employed, the recount is a formidable task. McDonnell and Deeds are drawing up long lists of volunteers who will monitor each of the 134 localities across the state where recounts will be tabulated.

On Tuesday, state and local elections officials sat in the audience and in the witness box. Several said they had already been inundated with requests from the recount teams compiled by McDonnell and Deeds.

J. Kirk Showalter, Richmond's registrar, said she had made one employee available to assist in a request for photocopies of the tapes inside every touch-screen voting machine used in the city. After two days, they had not succeeded in copying more than one-third of the tapes. She did not say whether McDonnell's or Deeds's campaign had made the request.

Jean Jenkins, secretary of the State Board of Elections, said registrars across the state had assured her that they could do the recount in one, very long day. The results would then be ferried by Virginia State Police to Richmond, where the next day state election officials would tally the results and make decisions on problematic ballots, such as illegible ones or those on which voters mistakenly marked two or more names.