Desperately short on time, Al Gore's lawyer pleaded with the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday to order vote recounts and revive his presidential campaign. Republican attorneys called George W. Bush the certified, rightful victor and said "not a single shred of evidence" suggests anybody was denied their vote.
Even as the seven justices mulled the vice president's fate, fellow Democrats said they were running low on patience. "This is coming to an end," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. He said a Bush presidency "looks more and more" likely.
One month after a maddeningly inconclusive Election Day, the question of who will serve as America's 43rd president still echoes throughout the nation's legislative and judicial chambers. On Thursday alone, two state judges and one federal court considered complaints about absentee ballots, and GOP lawmakers in Florida braced for a special session Friday to give Bush the state's 25 electoral votes in case the courts won't.
All this amid the pressure of a Tuesday deadline set out in the U.S. Constitution for states to appoint electors. If Florida's legislative and judicial branches can't agree on a presidential slate by the Electoral College meeting Dec. 18, a divided Congress could inherit the morass.
"Time is getting very short," Gore lawyer David Boies told Florida's high court. The seven justices, all with Democratic ties, aggressively quizzed both sides but seemed skeptical about their own authority to intervene.
The U.S. Supreme Court earlier this week set aside a Florida high court ruling allowing some late hand recounts of ballots, sending the case back for clarification. Chastened justices wondered out loud whether the U.S. Constitution gives the Florida Legislature rather than the court power to settle the presidential dispute.
Even before Boies had a chance to begin his opening remarks, Chief Justice Charles T. Wells interrupted to ask, "Where do we get our right" to resolve this kind of presidential impasse?
"I don't think the Constitution of the United States in any way means that the legislature has to sit both as a legislative body and a judicial body just because an election of presidential electors is involved," Boies replied.
A half-hour later, Wells asked the same question of Bush lawyer Barry Richard, who said the high court can review the case in a "very limited fashion."
"This is nothing more than a garden variety appeal," Richard said.
From a political standpoint, the remark was a breathtaking display of understatement.
Gore wants the judges to do nothing less than overturn the official results of Florida's election, which show Bush the victory by 537 votes out of 6 million cast. A trial court judge has already refused to order recounts in Democratic-leaning counties, prompting the appeal.
Gore narrowly won the national popular vote, but the White House goes to whomever earns Florida's dividends and tops 270 state electoral votes.
Gore invited running mate Joseph Lieberman to the vice president's mansion in Washington to watch the historic arguments on TV. Campaign chairman William Daley flew to Florida to thank Gore's lawyers, their job nearly done.
In Austin, Texas, Bush arrived for work at his governor's office just as the arguments began. He didn't watch the proceedings, though he was briefed afterward by James A. Baker III, his point man in Florida.
"We'll see what happens," Bush told reporters.
His advisers were keeping an eye on the Florida Legislature, but denied any involvement in the special session. Privately, senior Republicans said Bush's team was directing intermediaries who had quietly urged GOP lawmakers to intervene to protect Bush's interests.
House Speaker Tom Feeney had said he was in contact with Bush advisers but tried to roll back from the comments Thursday, saying he had talked to "friends who worked with the party." He seemed to complain about GOP outsiders "telling the party folks how to run things" in Florida, but said he had not discussed the special session with the Bush team.
House Democratic Leader Lois Frankel called the special session the "ultimate partisan act."
In the neoclassical Florida Supreme Court chambers, lawyers for Bush and his political ally, Secretary of State Katherine Harris, said Gore was asking the court to exceed its authority.
"There is not a single shred of evidence to show that any voter was denied the right to vote," Richard said, arguing that local election boards have wide discretion on recount petitions.
Harris attorney Joseph Klock said the court would have to "create a pile of law" to come down on Gore's side.
Justice Harry Lee Anstead questioned why Leon County Circuit Judge N. Sanders Sauls did not review any of the questionable ballots before ruling against Gore. Richard said there was "no basis to do that" unless Sauls first ruled that Gore was entitled to a recount.
Pressing Boies, Anstead questioned whether a recount would change the election's outcome. The attorney ticked off recount totals that were not certified, then practically begged the court for help.
"We have been trying to get these ballots counted, as this court knows, for many weeks now," Boies said.
The Bush team was prepared to appeal to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta if it loses the case.
Gore's team had suggested the vice president would quit the race if the state Supreme Court ruled against him, but Gore himself suggested a potentially longer timetable by raising questions about how absentee ballot application forms were handled in Seminole and Martin counties.
Democratic lawyers, alleging that applications were illegally corrected by state GOP officials before being mailed, want two judges to throw out up to 25,000 absentee ballots, thereby tilting the state to Gore.
The Martin County trial ended Thursday and the Seminole case was in its final gasps, with rapid decisions expected.
"Why should I not find there was substantial compliance by the voters and accept their vote?" asked Judge Nikki Clark, who posed tough questions to both sides in the Seminole County case.
Asked if a loss in the Supreme Court meant "it was over" for the vice president, Gore attorney Dexter Douglass purposefully clouded the picture. "You thought that, and we might have thought that, but it might not be. And I'm going to give you an answer that's ambiguous, because until that unlikely event ... occurs, we won't make a decision as lawyers to make a recommendation to our client."
More than 40 lawsuits seek to challenge election results, including one filed in a federal court seeking to disqualify more than 2,000 overseas ballots, mostly from military personnel. A judge began hearing arguments Thursday.