The US Supreme Court bombarded lawyers for George W Bush and Al Gore with questions for 90 historic minutes in Washington yesterday in the case that could finally decide who has won the presidential election.

The nine justices, who are divided, set no timetable for a ruling on whether to resume a recount of Florida's questionable votes.

But their decision to hold oral arguments at extremely short notice signalled an understanding of the importance of speed.

The legal showdown centred on the partial manual recount that the Florida Supreme Court ordered last Friday and that the US Supreme Court halted less than 24 hours later by a majority of 5-4.

If the federal justices order the recount to start again, Gore still has hope - if not, it's all over for him.

"I talked to some of our legal team. They are cautiously optimistic. If they are, I am," Bush said in Texas.

Democrat Gore was at the vice president's residence in Washington, but three of his children were among the spectators, given seats to the historic arguments