Al Gore's prospects for winning the presidency dimmed Monday when a state judge refused to overturn George W. Bush's certified victory in Florida and the U.S. Supreme Court set aside a ruling that had allowed manual recounts. Running out of options, the vice president's team pleaded with Democrats to stick with him a few more days.
''They won. We lost. We're appealing'' to the Florida Supreme Court, said Gore attorney David Boies as Gore advisers said the court could be the last stand in his historic bid to overturn the state's presidential election. ''We've moved one step closer to having this resolved.''
It was, Gore's advisers said, a major step in the wrong direction.
Circuit Judge N. Sanders Sauls rejected the Democrat's bid for recounts in two counties hours after the U.S. Supreme Court tossed a related case back to the Florida high court, saying the state justices had to better explain why they extended a deadline for counting votes.
Neither decision unraveled the legal knots tying up the election of a 43rd American president, but the developments were a blow for Gore. He is urgently searching for a court victory to sustain his presidential quest.
Andrew Card, Bush's prospective chief of staff, said the day's court rulings had buoyed the Republican camp and given new impetus to efforts to form a new Bush government.
''We'll be able to move pretty quickly,'' once there is either a conclusive court ruling or a Gore concession, Card said in an interview.
On Day 27 of the longest, closest presidential race in a century, running mate Joseph Lieberman and campaign manager William Daley called Democrats on Capitol Hill to explain the whirlwind legal developments and urge them to remain steadfast.
Gore was dispatching Lieberman to rally Democratic lawmakers in person Tuesday, while GOP running mate Dick Cheney planned a Capitol Hill visit to talk to Republican congressmen about the presidential stalemate and Bush's transition plans.
One senior Democrat who participated in the talks said the Gore team showed no signs of quitting. However, the vice president's advisers said privately that their boss was running out of time and options.
They said he would not concede the race before the Florida Supreme Court rules on Sauls' decision and a Democratic lawsuit is settled in Seminole County over irregular handling of GOP absentee ballot applications. If he loses both cases, Gore is certain to give up, said advisers - most of whom insisted he had a decent chance of prevailing before the state high court with its seven Democratic appointees.
One Gore confidant, who said the cause is all but lost, argued that even if the vice president wanted to leave the race before his legal options are exhausted, internal pressures from the party's base would not allow it. The advisers spoke on condition of anonymity.
''The last stop in Florida is the Florida Supreme Court,'' Gore spokesman Mark Fabiani said.
Gore, Bush, lawmakers in Florida, congressmen in Washington and scores of judges presiding over the more than 40 lawsuits are focused on two deadlines: Dec. 12, when state electors are chosen, and Dec. 18, when the Electoral College meets.
Without a clear resolution, the Constitution throws the election in the lap of a divided Congress.
Democrats were glum, though they seemed to be heeding Gore's request to stay by his side until the Florida Supreme Court rules.
''I think we're down but not out,'' said Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland. ''This was a punch that knocked him down, but it didn't knock him out.''
Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., said the case is ''a legal issue that at some point becomes an issue of time.''
Republicans were in a hurry to hear the bell toll for Gore.
''How many defeats are enough?'' said Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., the fourth-ranking member of the House. ''The time has come for the vice president to admit defeat.''
''Al Gore is facing the longest week of his political life,'' said Scott Reed, a GOP operative who ran Bob Dole's failed 1996 presidential campaign. ''Time has run out, but he won't give up.''
Just three days after hearing historic arguments, the U.S. Supreme Court invited Florida's top court to clarify its reasons for extending the deadline for hand-counted ballots in some Democratic counties. A spokesman for the state high court said briefs were due on that case Tuesday afternoon.
Bush called the Supreme Court ruling ''a very strong statement on our behalf.'' While posing for pictures in front of a garland-strung hearth, Bush told reporters he was dispatching running mate Dick Cheney to Capitol Hill to meet with GOP leaders to continue making plans for a presumptive Bush presidency.
Florida's seven justices had ordered Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a Republican, to accept recount totals for several days after the state's Nov. 14 deadline. Bush appealed, but the Supreme Court did not rule on the merits of his filing.
By passing the case back to Florida, the nation's highest court leaves in doubt gains made by Gore through manual recounts after Nov. 14. Those totals trimmed Bush's lead from 930 votes to 537 out of 6 million cast.
Hours later, Sauls ruled that Gore ''failed to carry the requisite burden of proof'' in the unprecedented legal challenge to Bush's 537-vote certified victory. Gore attorneys hope the state high court hears oral arguments as early as Wednesday, rules on the case Thursday and, if Gore prevails, orders recounts to begin Saturday - leaving just a few days before the Dec. 12 deadline.
In Florida, the state legislature, dominated by Republicans, appeared to slow down its plans for a special session to choose presidential electors. Bush's political operatives signaled they preferred a go-slow approach, fearing backlash from voters under an intense public relations campaign by Democrats.
Bush himself urged caution, telling reporters who asked about the legislative fight: ''We ought to take this process one day at a time.''
A Washington Post-ABC News survey said 56 percent of Americans want the Legislature to leave the unsettled election alone. Equal numbers want Congress to butt out, though the U.S. Constitution gives state and federal lawmakers a role in the Electoral College process.