George W. Bush says he can feel Al Gore's pain, and won't press him to concede defeat in their overtime struggle for the White House. The vice president suggested he might fight on even if he loses a high-stakes appeal at the Florida Supreme Court.
''I can understand his anguish,'' Bush, the almost-president-elect, said Tuesday of his rival for the White House. ''I can understand the emotions involved.''
For his part, Gore told reporters, ''I don't feel anything other than optimistic'' while awaiting a state high court decision on his appeal of a devastating trial court ruling earlier in the week in Florida's Leon County Circuit Court. He stopped well short of saying he would quit if he lost, a position that risked eroding support among members of his own party.
Two other election-related lawsuits ''will end up in the Florida Supreme Court,'' Gore noted, both of them on the issue of absentee ballots.
Even so, 29 days after Election Day, the nation's unprecedented campaign drama seemed to be coming to an end.
And the public, judging from the latest polls, wanted it that way. An NBC survey found 59 percent of Americans think Gore should concede while a Gallup poll found 58 percent saying he should concede.
Neither Bush nor Gore can command an Electoral College majority without Florida's 25 electoral votes, but the man who wins them will ascend to the presidency on Jan 20. The Texas governor has been certified the winner by 537 votes, but Gore is seeking to overturn that in the courts.
In developments on Tuesday, the Florida Supreme Court set a deadline of noon Wednesday for attorneys to submit written arguments in the vice president's appeal. Oral arguments were scheduled for Thursday.
A prompt ruling seemed likely, since the state's presidential electors are to be chosen by Dec. 12, and the Florida justices have previously noted the importance of that deadline.
The state's high court had a second election-related case pending, this one a request from the U.S. Supreme Court to clarify its reasoning behind a ruling last month that permitted manual recounts to proceed beyond a deadline fixed in state law.
Gore's support was holding firm within the Democratic party - to a point.
''The Florida Supreme Court is going to rule in two or three days, and if he's unsuccessful on that, then I think that is the end of it,'' said Sen. Evan Bayh, of Indiana, one of several Democrats to express those sentiments in Washington.
That was precisely what Gore avoided saying he would do at a news conference outside the White House.
Asked directly whether he would concede if he loses his appeal, he replied, ''when the issues that are now being considered in the Florida Supreme Court are decided, that'll be an important point.''
Later, he noted the presence of other lawsuits in the courts - cases in which he is not a formal party - in which judges are being asked to throw out thousands of absentee ballots. The cases in Seminole and Martin counties are politically tricky for Gore, since his entire challenge to Bush's certified victory has been based on a claim that every vote should be counted, particularly questionable ballots that were rejected by counting machines in other regions of the state.
''I don't know what will happen there,'' the vice president told reporters of the absentee ballot lawsuits. ''I think that those two cases are likely to travel the same route as the case that went into Judge Sauls' court and will end up in the Florida Supreme Court.''
N. Sanders Sauls was the circuit judge who rejected Gore's challenge to Bush's victory in Florida, ruling point-by-point against the vice president on Monday.
In Austin, Texas, Bush spent Tuesday in meetings related to his transition, then granted an interview to CBS' ''60 Minutes II.''
He said he didn't want to be addressed as the president-elect until there was finality in the election.
''Finality for me would be if I got a phone call from my opponent and he said, 'We've run the string. We've done all we can do.'''
Bush passed up several opportunities to press for Gore's concession, part of a pattern in the past two days in which he and his allies have softened their rhetoric regarding the vice president.
Gore conceded the race once before, on election night, then called back a few hours later to withdraw his concession. Asked on CBS about that conversation - in which Gore has said Bush was snippy - the governor said, ''You know I wasn't warm and fuzzy on the telephone, I will put it to you that way. I was fairly abrupt.''
Bush signaled anew he intends to name retired Gen. Colin Powell as his secretary of state, but ruled out an appointment for his brother, Jeb. ''He needs to be in Florida doing the job of governor.''
The Florida governor had a delicate political issue on his own hands, as the leaders of the Republican legislature squabbled over whether to convene a special session to appoint a slate of electors loyal to his brother. Jeb Bush told reporters his position on the issue ''has been the same since the beginning. I don't think it's appropriate for the legislature to act if they don't have to.''
Frustrated in his attempt to convene a special session, Florida's Republican House speaker publicly criticized his GOP Senate counterpart for resisting.
''We've got a dance partner at this dance and we can't dance alone,'' said Speaker Tom Feeney, referring to Senate President John McKay.
McKay spokeswoman Karen Chandler responded, ''We can appreciate the speaker's position but as President McKay continues to say, the Senate will not be rushed to judgment.''