WASHINGTON — It was an interesting role reversal: The conservative Rehnquist court, defined in recent years by its zeal to protect states' rights, struggled Friday to find its place in the contested Florida election.

There was Chief Justice William Rehnquist himself, usually a doctrinaire defender of state authority, drilling away on the subject of a Florida state court's alleged misdeeds.

"I don't agree with you," Rehnquist said in cutting off Al Gore's lawyer, Laurence Tribe, who had argued the Florida Supreme Court ruling that allowed continued hand recounts does not have federal merit.

"It seems to me a federal question arises if the Florida Supreme Court in its opinion rather clearly says that we're using the Florida Constitution to reach the result we reach," which Rehnquist said conflicts with a previous Supreme Court case.

And there was liberal jurist Ruth Bader Ginsburg taking the opposite part — seeming by her questions to do back-flips in favor of the state body.

"Would you agree," she asked George W. Bush's lawyer, Theodore Olson, "that, when we read a state court decision, we should read it in the light most favorable to the integrity of the state supreme court?"

Or, in other words, she continued, "we might have interpreted it differently, but we are not the arbiters, they are?"

The display during oral arguments on the stalemated presidential election raised questions about the court's susceptibility to politics.

"We're all dizzy," said Temple University constitutional law professor David Kairys.

"There's an all-around flip which should give anyone pause who thinks this is all about neutrality and law as opposed to the outcomes and the questions of power that are really at the surface in all this," Kairys said.

In recent years, the court has often ruled 5-4 to boost state authority over federal, with the same five justices in the conservative majority each time.

Bush, the Republican, said during the campaign that he admired Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, and would seek to name other federal judges who share their states' rights views.

In his appeal to the Supreme Court, however, Bush expressly asked the federal high court to step into what might otherwise be an intramural fight between two branches of the Florida government over a matter of Florida law.

Gore, on the other hand, argued there is no federal role to play. Traditionally, Democrats and liberal jurists are identified with a more expansive, activist federal government.

The justices surprised many longtime students of the court by agreeing to take the case in the first place, because it seemed to many like a case without much constitutional significance.

But having taken it on, the conventional wisdom held that the court would try to speak with one voice, in deference to the unique political sensitivity of the case.

After Friday's arguments, many court-watchers weren't so sure the justices could do that.

"To the extent one can judge from the arguments, there was some sympathy — frankly more than I expected — for finding that the Florida Supreme Court's decision was in violation of the Constitution," said Robert Bennett, constitutional law professor at Northwestern University. "And that sympathy was on the part of justices whose sympathy is usually with deference to the state."

In recent states rights cases, Scalia, Thomas and Rehnquist were joined by the court's two swing votes, Justices Anthony Kennedy and Sandra Day O'Connor.

Dissenting were Ginsburg and Justices Stephen Breyer, David Souter and John Paul Stevens.

In the court term that ended in June, 20 of the 73 signed decisions were reached by 5-4 votes, the highest percentage of one-vote outcomes in more than a decade.

The Rehnquist-Scalia-Thomas-Kennedy-O'Connor lineup was the majority in 13 of those 20 cases.

Contemplating that same split now, the justices may decide not to rule after all, suggested James F. Simon, a constitutional scholar and author of "The Center Holds," a study of the divisions within the Rehnquist court.

"If in fact there is a deep division on the court as to the merits of the case, that might be the most prudent course for them," Simon said.

No matter the outcome, a 5-4 or 6-3 decision "extends the divide in the country and does this court no good."