Casting his fight for the presidency as a defense of America's democratic values, Vice President Al Gore said in a nationally televised appeal last night that he is contesting the Florida election to guarantee that "the people's will" is heard.

Fighting opinion polls which show that even some of his own voters believe that it is time to give up, Gore warned that democracy would suffer if all of the votes cast three weeks ago in Florida are not properly tallied.

"This is America," he said in a five-minute speech from his official residence in Washington. "When votes are cast, we count them."

The Democrat referred only indirectly to the decision by Florida officials to award the state and its crucial 25 electoral votes to Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who has claimed victory.

"If the people do not, in the end, choose me, so be it," Gore said. "The outcome will have been fair, and the people will have spoken." He pledged to work for national unity if he is defeated.

Gore's extraordinary televised plea was designed to stop the erosion in public support for his position and buy time for his campaign's efforts to overturn the election results in court.

In urging that "democracy" be "placed ahead of partisan politics," Gore asked the nation to consider the consequences of allowing the presidency to be decided on the basis of "this inaccurate and incomplete count."

"How can you have confidence that your vote will not be ignored in some future election?" he asked.

Without mentioning Bush or the Republicans, Gore said that the election "would be long over" if it had not been for the other side's efforts "to block the process at every turn." And he repeated his argument that all the votes have yet to be counted.

Gore blamed the delays on lawsuits filed by Bush to block the recounts, though it was the Gore campaign that first threatened to support legal action after the virtually dead-even Florida vote.

He defended his determination to prolong the resolution of the presidential election by saying: "I believe our Constitution matters more than convenience."

Prominent Republicans, including Bush's running mate, former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, have said that Gore's refusal to abandon his fight could undermine the effectiveness of a Bush administration.

But Gore insisted that the nation "will be stronger, not weaker, if our next president assumes office following a process that most Americans believe is fair."

"In one of God's unforeseen paths," he said, "this election may point us all to a new common ground."

Bush was certified as the winner of Florida's 25 electoral votes Sunday night. Unless Gore's court battle succeeds, the Texas Republican would have a total of 271 electoral votes, one more than the bare majority needed to assume the presidency.

Yesterday, the Bush campaign plowed ahead as though the election were no longer in doubt. Meanwhile, the Gore side worked furiously to resist the seeming inevitability of a Bush administration.

Gore's remarks capped another day of major developments, with the presidential election fight about to enter its fourth week. Among the events that took place:

The vice president's lawyers went to state court in Florida to contest the election results. The presiding judge promised to expedite the case. But it could be next week, at the earliest, before he issues a decision and appeals are certain.

The federal agency that oversees the transition to a new presidential administration rejected Bush's request for immediate release of $5.3 million in taxpayer funds to defray his costs of assuming power in Washington. An agency spokeswoman said uncertainty over who had won the presidential election made it impossible to release the money yet or to allow either candidate access to government offices.

Cheney announced that the Bush campaign is soliciting private contributions to finance its transition operations. Donations of up to $5,000 will be sought from individuals, but no corporate or political action committee gifts will be accepted.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott called for hearings to start in early January on Bush's Cabinet appointments. The Mississippi Republican referred to Bush as president-elect, a term that Bush has thus far declined to use himself.

President Clinton declined to accept Bush's victory claim and said that the Florida courts still have to sort out the election results. "There is a legal process here," he said at a Cabinet meeting on transition matters that Gore did not attend. "Let's just watch this happen. It'll be over soon, and we'll be ready for the transition."

Since Election Day, Gore has faced an uphill struggle to win the presidency. And with the declaration by Florida's secretary of state that Bush had won Florida's 25 electoral votes - and with it, the presidency - the odds against Gore appear to have grown considerably.

The vice president faces two major obstacles in the near term: a practical one - the Dec. 12 deadline for choosing Florida's electors - and a political one - the continuing fight with Bush in the court of public opinion.

His speech last night was intended, at a minimum, to keep public opinion from swinging sharply away from him. Recent national polls indicate that public sentiment may be turning in favor of Bush, who has never lost his narrow lead in the Florida count and now has been stamped the winner by state officials.

For now, fellow Democrats are standing behind the vice president. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota traveled to Florida with House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri for an event staged by the Gore campaign.

"I think there's overwhelming support for your effort and a realization that if we completed the count, there is little doubt that you'd be ahead," Daschle told Gore in a midday conference call from Tallahassee to the vice president's residence in Washington.

Gephardt added that House Democrats are "entirely supportive" of going ahead with a challenge to the official result in Florida.

However, politicians in both parties will continue to watch the polls. A majority of Americans polled in national surveys say they believe that Gore should concede the election. Even a significant number of Gore voters think it is time for him to abandon the fight, the polls show.

Time is also working against the vice president. The rapid approach of a Dec. 12 deadline for Florida to appoint its electors gives the Democrat just two weeks to persuade the courts to reopen the election count - and for that count to give Gore enough additional votes to wipe out Bush's lead, officially 537 votes out of nearly 6 million cast.

"Gore's best hope is for an activist Florida judge to do a quick count and change the numbers," says Jan Baran, a veteran Republican election lawyer in Washington.

Gore is formally challenging the results in three Florida counties. His lawsuit contends that a proper count of votes in those counties would reverse the outcome of the election.

Leon County Circuit Judge N. Sanders Sauls gave the Bush campaign until Friday to respond to Gore's initial filing. But it could be this weekend, at the earliest, before the case is heard.

A ruling might not come until next week. The losing side is almost certain to appeal any decision to the Florida Supreme Court and could decide to take the matter into the federal courts as well.

While Gore's lawyers were urging the judge to move with dispatch, the Bush campaign continued to act as if there were no uncertainty about who would be taking the oath of office on Jan. 20.

In Washington, Cheney began setting the Republican transition operation in gear. Showing no effects of the mild heart attack he suffered last week, Cheney told reporters in Washington that he and Bush "feel it is our obligation to the American people" to begin "assembling the administration that they've chosen in this election."

Cheney criticized Gore's refusal to concede as "unfortunate" and warned that the nation's interests might be damaged if the prolonged election battle prevents the new administration from adequately preparing to take over.

The transition affects "the ability of the new team to deal with that first crisis when it arises, as it inevitably will," Cheney said.

He indicated that Bush is in the process of choosing Cabinet secretaries. He did not foreclose the possibility that some of those choices might be made public before the legal wrangling over the Florida vote is final. Bush is seeking "diversity" and a wide variety of backgrounds in his personnel search, Cheney added.

Given the closeness of the election and an evenly divided Congress, Cheney said, "we really do need to reach out to people from all walks of life, from every political faith, Republican and Democrat alike, to find principles we can agree upon, programs we can develop and support mutually together."