Washington Observers of the battle for ballots in Florida that could determine the presidency might look at how the U.S. Supreme Court will take up an important issue in this disputed election on Friday and ask a simple question:
Despite all the fanfare and attention surrounding the high court, it is focusing on a relatively narrow issue: Did the Florida Supreme Court overstep its bounds by extending a state deadline to allow manual recounts and include them in the final tally?
The issue appears moot, because George W. Bush apparently won either way with or without the recount.
So the nine justices won't determine who won the election, or even if recounts by hand in this case are constitutional.
But they could help Bush secure Florida's electoral votes by placing a stamp of legitimacy Bush's lawyers argued for "legal finality" on an electoral mess that may be in dispute for months or years.
Many constitutional scholars agree that the Supreme Court can help Bush in this case but provide only a small benefit to Al Gore.
If the court strikes down the Florida Supreme Court's decision to allow manual recounts in three counties, that would seriously undermine the case Gore is trying to make in Florida courts, where he is contesting Bush's certified victory.
In the court of public opinion, it would also be a huge political blow to Gore's efforts to continue this fight.
But if the nine justices allow the Florida court's decision to stand, Gore gets a small boost in his Florida court battle, but hardly decisive.
He still has to persuade Florida judges to reverse the certified results of an election, but a U.S. Supreme Court victory in his favor particularly if the justices are unanimous could give him a huge public relations boost.
"The Supreme Court has narrowed the issues so much, it may not be decisive," said Paul Rothstein, a constitutional law professor at Georgetown University Law School.
"Bush could win whatever the decision whether the recount is allowed or not," he said.
In the big picture of this election battle, where politics and the law mix, the Supreme Court may be something of a trump card for Bush, along with the Florida Legislature and the U.S. Congress.
GOP leaders in the state Legislature have made it clear they are ready to name Florida's electors for Bush if legal disputes leave the matter in doubt by Dec. 12.
If the dispute reaches the U.S. House in January, Republican leaders say they are prepared to use their majority to help elect Bush.
The U.S. Supreme Court is the wild card in all this. Just by taking the case last week, the justices surprised many court watchers who predicted they would avoid it.
And however they rule on the case before them, any decisive action in Florida courts that went Gore's way could go to the high court quickly.
That's why much of the interest today will be hearing how the justices approach the messiest presidential election in more than 100 years.