WASHINGTON - Al Gore offered just a brief wave to news cameras Monday while his children and lawyers witnessed the Supreme Court arguments over his political future. A ruling against the vice president would be ''probably the end of it,'' running mate Joseph Lieberman said.
At the apex of his 34-day battle for the White House and with no way to know the next move, Gore did not authorize any aide to put a concession speech on standby, two senior advisers said.
But the man sharing Gore's Democratic ticket revealed that he had already been twice down the road toward giving up. ''I have written, you know, at least two concession speeches, having one on election night and then I was preparing one Friday, really,'' Lieberman told a radio interviewer on WTIC in Hartford, Conn.
Friday was the day that the Democrats' challenge of the presidential election looked bleakest - until the Florida Supreme Court issued its stunning order for statewide recounts.
Acting on an appeal from Republican George W. Bush, the U.S. Supreme Court halted the recounts Saturday, hours after they began, pending a court hearing Monday.
The attorney pleading Gore's case before the nation's highest court Monday refused to say it was his last argument for the recounts that could push Gore ahead of Bush in the fight for Florida's decisive 25 electoral votes.
''I'm not sure,'' lawyer David Boies told reporters among a circus of demonstrators on the courthouse steps.
''Every time I've made a prediction about what the last argument was, I've been proven wrong. So I don't want to say that this will be the last argument, but I think this was an extremely important argument.''
Three of Gore's four children - Karenna, Kristin and Albert III - claimed sought-after spectator seats inside the court chamber, along with campaign chairman William Daley and former secretary of state Warren Christopher, designated wise man of Gore's court challenge to the 537-vote lead that Florida's Republican secretary of state certified for Bush on Nov. 26.
Daley, Christopher and attorney Ron Klain briefed Gore on the hearing afterward at his home, where Lieberman and his wife, Hadassah, lunched with the Gore family and watched the TV broadcast of the Supreme Court's audiotape of the morning hearing.
Outside, the boisterous demonstrations of recent days had dwindled to just two elderly women. ''I just wanted him to feel and to know there were those of out here who cared,'' said Olga Hirshhorn, 80, from Naples, Fla. Bundled in a scarf and knit cap, Hirshhorn made her show of support alongside Marie Henderson, 75.
Boies and his wife joined the sober party inside the gated residence. One person there described Gore as very positive, grabbing Boies' hand and telling him, ''Congratulations, David. That was brilliant.''
Early in the evening, as President Clinton was lighting the national Christmas tree, Gore slipped into the White House for what a spokesman called ''office work.'' He waved off reporters' questions. Klain optimistically headed back to Tallahassee in case the court ordered Florida's recounts to resume.
Gore's fourth child, Sarah, was at school in Boston, a spokeswoman said.
Lieberman told WTIC that the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to halt vote counting until it could decide the case felt like ''a kind of a body blow.''
The senator from Connecticut added that he is optimistic about the Democrats' chances with the high court. And he scolded Republicans for not stipulating that they would accept recounts if jump-started by a ruling of the nine justices.
''If the Supreme Court rules in Governor Bush's favor ... that's probably the end of it,'' Lieberman said.
But if the opposite happens, he warned, ''I'm afraid that the Bush campaign hasn't said the same thing about respecting the U.S. Supreme Court decision on the Florida decision, so I think then we'll probably be on a very fascinating constitutional journey which may take us into January.''
In a fortuitous twist of timing, the Gores' crammed holiday schedule took a pause on Monday, with five evenings of parties slated for later this week and next. Supreme Court staff signaled by dinner time that a ruling was unlikely to come Monday night.
Klain, reached by cell phone as he changed planes in Atlanta, had a bounce in his voice. ''I've got to get back to Tallahassee to count the votes,'' he said just as he reached his gate and read the board. ''Flight canceled. That's not a good omen.''