The grains of sand in Al Gore's hourglass have dwindled to a precious few.
It is now almost a month since election day of the closest presidential contest in American history. Legally speaking, Vice President Gore has hope.
There are still possible combinations of court rulings in the family tree of lawsuits the ballot has spawned that would result in him standing outside the Capitol on Jan. 20 and swearing to preserve and protect the United States Constitution.
But from the beginning of this strange battle, delay has been George W. Bush's friend. Every roadblock, every U-turn, every remanded court ruling - such as yesterday's decision by the US Supreme Court - chews up precious days before the Dec. 12 deadline for the appointment of Electoral College electors.
Politically speaking, delay also serves to weaken Gore's support and strengthen any perception that Governor Bush has been the winner all along - or, rather, that Bush might
as well be anointed the winner of a vote that in statistical terms was a tie. "Whatever the murky outlook is, time is not on Al Gore's side," says Marshall Wittmann, government analyst at the Hudson Institute in Washington. "Whatever does not give him a clear victory is a setback. This decision makes the hurdle that much higher."
In legal terms, the US Supreme Court's action on Monday to vacate the Florida Supreme Court ruling allowing the continuation of hand counts was a neutral ruling. In asking the state justices for clarification as to the legal basis for their decision, the nation's highest court was in essence punting.
At time of writing, the future course of the hand count case was unclear. Presumably, Florida's state justices could provide the asked-for information relatively quickly, bringing the issue back to Washington again.
The ruling is far from definitive. "It isn't clear what's going to happen with this," says Stephen Hess, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution.
Nor is it clear whether the Supreme Court decision will affect the arguably more important legal proceeding of Gore's official challenge, or contest, to Florida's now-certified election results.
In effect, the US Supreme Court decision only temporarily voids the decision of the Florida court, essentially giving it a road map for what to do next.
"Like everything else in this election, it's a tie," says Akhil Amar, a constitutional scholar at Yale University, of the high court ruling.
At time of writing, Leon County Judge N. Sander Sauls had delayed release of his judgment on this case pending analysis of how the US Supreme Court decision affected his own work.
In practical terms, however, the legal events of Monday morning probably constitute a setback to Gore's hopes. Democrats as a whole remain publicly behind their candidate. But Gore does not command the personal support or enthusiasm within his party that Bush does within his.
Any eventual victory for Gore now appears to depend on increasingly technical lawsuits that are not easy for the public to understand.
Many Democrats privately want no part of a political "Bleak House" - referring to the Charles Dickens novel about a legal challenge that consumed its protagonist.
In the end, the US Supreme Court decision was not a ruling for Bush on the merits of his appeal. But by setting aside the Florida Supreme Court's ruling, it could place in doubt the gains Gore made through the hand recount in the days after Nov. 14.
That was the original deadline for certification set by Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris before the state Supreme Court ordered her to accept updated results for several more days. She is the state's chief election official.
Gore adviser Greg Simon, who is helping with on-the-ground activities in Florida, called the US Supreme Court ruling "just a timeout." "This is not a penalty or anything else. This doesn't move the ball either way," he says.
The Bush camp was initially cautious in its response to the ruling.
"Apparently what they said as near as we can make out is that they can't figure out what the Florida Supreme Court based its decision on, whether constitutional grounds or Florida state laws," Bush lawyer Fred Bartlit said.
Staff writers Gail Russell Chaddock, Francine Kiefer, and Abraham McLaughlin contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society