With the Florida election dispute headed back to a divided U.S. Supreme Court, Al Gore needs an admittedly uphill victory to count more ballots or ''that's the end of the road,'' his chief lawyer declared Sunday.
A chorus of Democrats, including House leader Richard Gephardt, urged that the nation's nine justices be the final arbiter in the month-old electoral drama - even as Florida's Legislature considers action of its own.
David Boies, Gore's lead lawyer, stopped short of saying whether Gore would immediately concede the election if he lost in the Supreme Court. But in a round of morning TV news show interviews, he made clear the high stakes of Monday's hearing.
''If no votes are counted, then I think that's the end of the road,'' Boies told Fox News.
The nation's nine justices ''have the power to decide this,'' Boies added on NBC, seeking to assure the nation the legal deadlock for Florida's prized 25 electoral votes was nearing an end.
The Florida Supreme Court considered shipping the 12,000 disputed ballots at the center of the legal struggle to Washington as evidence, but the U.S. Supreme Court directed that they remain in Tallahassee, court officials said Sunday. Before the decision, the local Tallahassee court that had custody of the ballots gathered them up and moved them to the state Supreme Court for a transfer.
The two central players kept low profiles Sundays. Bush spent the morning at his Texas ranch before heading back to the state's capital. Gore went to church in suburban Washington, where the Rev. Martha E. Phillips prayed ''for our country in this time of turmoil.''
Bush's lawyers honed their arguments for the high court. ''We're not afraid to let every vote be counted,'' said James Baker, the former secretary of state and Bush's point man on the Florida dispute. ''The issue is what is every legal vote.''
Boies acknowledged Gore faced tough odds, noting a written statement from Justice Antonin Scalia on Saturday that Bush had a good chance of prevailing.
''I think it gives us a hill to climb. I think that you've got five justices there that have decided that there is a substantial probability that Governor Bush is right on this issue,'' the lawyer told CBS.
Boies declined to predict whether, if Gore lost in the high court case, the vice president might delay a concession until another case seeking to throw out Florida absentee ballots works its way through appeal.
''I'm not going to say what's going to happen,'' Boies said.
But Gephardt said ''I believe he (Gore) will'' concede if he loses in the Supreme Court - and that Bush should do the same if the tables are turned.
''We should all follow the rule of law, and I'm positive the vice president will do that, and I think George Bush will do that,'' Gephardt said on ABC.
Gephardt spokeswoman Laura Nichols said afterward that the House minority leader wasn't trying to pressure Gore. ''I think if the vice president thought he had other legal options open to him, we'd defer to his judgment,'' she said.
Bush lawyers argue the Florida Supreme Court erred when it ordered as many as 45,000 disputed ballots statewide to be counted before the election is decided. That order was temporarily set aside by the U.S. Supreme Court with a 5-4 decision on Saturday.
Florida's Republican secretary of state Katherine Harris, joining in Bush's appeal, on Sunday filed papers with the Supreme Court to use 10 minutes of the Bush's lawyers 45-minute allotment to add its voice to the case.
Preparing for days for a possible transition, Bush's team on Sunday dismissed suggestions whomever wins will be severely handicapped as president.
''It will be harder than it normally is but I don't think we'll have questions of legitimacy,'' Baker said on ABC. ''That's especially true if the contest is settled by the nation's highest court.''
Democrats, whose hopes for a Gore victory have been on a legal rollercoaster, urged that the U.S. Supreme Court have the final say - even as the GOP-controlled Florida Legislature takes steps to name a slate of electors loyal to Bush.
''I believe that it probably is the last word, and it is the last chance to have this issue not go to the United States Congress,'' Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., said on Fox.
Veteran lawyers were handling the arguments Monday in the Supreme Court - Theodore Olson for Bush and Boies for Gore.
At issue now is the fate of an estimated 45,000 so-called undervotes - ballots in which no selection for president was detected by voting machines.
Hundreds of ballots were counted before the high court ordered a halt Saturday to the counting.
When the counting stopped, an unofficial Associated Press tally put Bush's lead over Democrat Al Gore at 177 votes statewide out of 6 million ballots cast. A Florida Supreme Court order on Friday added votes Gore gained in manual recounts in some counties, placing Bush's lead at 193 votes.
The state's 25 electoral votes will determine the 43rd president and end the deadlock from the Nov. 7 election.
Like the nation at large, the courts have been narrowly divided.
The Florida Supreme Court ruled 4-3 on Friday to overturn a state judge and order the ballots be counted as Gore requested; the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 on Saturday to temporarily suspended the ruling so it could hear the case.
Scalia made an unusual accompanying statement to Saturday's decision, suggesting Gore faces a difficult case.
''It suffices to say that the issuance of the stay suggests that a majority of the court, while not deciding the issues presented, believe that the petitioner has a substantial probability of success,'' Scalia wrote.
In a dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens said, ''To stop the counting of legal votes, the majority today departs from'' rules of judicial restraint.
Ruling to stop the count were Scalia, Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Sandra Day O'Connor. All five were named to the bench by Republican presidents.
Joining Stevens in dissent was Justice David Souter, appointed by Bush's father in 1990, and Clinton appointees Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.