Will America Accept the Winner? ; R A Hyper-Close Election Result, Dogged by Dispute, Could Harm the President's Legitimacy

Article excerpt

The most important question arising from the extraordinary presidential election of 2000 may not be who won, but whether the nation will accept that the eventual winner was fairly chosen.

A president pursued by doubts about his legitimacy would be hobbled in dealings with Congress, foreign governments, and even (perhaps especially) the press. If the situation festers, it could undermine one of America's proudest boasts: that it is a nation of orderly laws, not capricious men.

Yet it now appears an election in which 100 million votes were cast could be decided by about a condo's-worth of Floridians.

In such a situation, opportunities for missteps by both Al Gore and George W. Bush and their followers abound.

The manner in which Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush handle the situation over the next several days could be critical.

"This is a once-in-a-century cluster of events that pose an extraordinary challenge to our political class and our political leaders: to manage a situation that has a potential to do serious damage to ... our constitutional system," says Thomas Mann, a government-studies scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

The last time America faced such an uncertain outcome in its presidential race, in 1960, Richard Nixon conceded to John F. Kennedy and slipped gently into the night - even though he was convinced that fraud had made the difference. Nixon lost to Kennedy by only 0.2 percent of the vote.

Although Nixon was not a man known for giving political quarter, he quickly forswore any court challenge.

In later years, he said he was both worried about the nation and his own image. It proved a shrewd move: a "sore loser" tag might have made his 1968 comeback victory impossible.

For his part, JFK acknowledged the slimness of his margin by appointing Republicans as secretary of Defense and secretary of the Treasury. Such a show of bipartisanship might help soothe lingering bitterness from this year's vote.

If George W. Bush wins, for instance, "he might be smart to appoint some Democrats to the Cabinet," says Thomas Cronin, a presidential scholar and president of Whitman College in Walla, Walla, Wash.

The electoral effect

The relationship between the popular vote totals and the election's possible outcome is one factor creating the current delicate situation.

At time of writing it appeared possible that the candidate who received the most ballots will not be the one who sits in the Oval Office come January, thanks to the arcane US Electoral College system.

Americans schooled on the virtues of majority rule might find this difficult to accept. …