America's elder statesmen prepare to battle it out with their velvet hammers.

Secretaries of State
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Neither secretary of state can have imagined such a duel: brutal politics wrapped in the suave trappings of diplomacy, with the prize of the presidency of the United States for whichever of their respective clients wins.

Neither secretary of state can have imagined such a duel: brutal politics wrapped in the suave trappings of diplomacy, with the prize of the presidency of the United States for whichever of their respective clients wins.

The legal struggle for the 25 electoral votes of Florida pits against each other two of the country's most eminent elder statesmen. Representing George W Bush is James Addison Baker III, consigliere to the Bush family for more than two decades. In the other corner is Warren Christopher, official or unofficial adviser to every Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson.

Their outward styles differ hugely: Mr Baker's favoured image is of Texan good ol' boy, a pair of black cowboy boots poking out from beneath his immaculate Houston-tailored suits, while Mr Christopher has the dour manner of his native North Dakota, which the best part of a lifetime in Los Angeles has failed to change.

But strip aside the trappings and the men are remarkably similar. Both are in their 70s. Both are top-drawer career lawyers, who would be happy arguing the other's case if their roles were reversed. Both are adherents of the "velvet hammer" school of lawyering; moderate and reasonable in tone but iron-hard in substance.

Above all, both fulfil a vital function in the battle for public opinion that may decide this unbelievably close election. Messrs Baker and Christopher have gravitas by the shovel-load - in any other circumstance they would be considered impartial "wise men". Both camps are banking on them to persuade a cynical electorate the Florida contest is somethingloftier than what it is - a no-holds-barred extra time struggle to win the White House.

Mr Baker talks of bringing "finality" to a process thatmost Americans are desperate to see the back of - in other words, using the legal system if necessary, securing a definitive result while his man, George W, is ahead. Mr Christopher's case is that every fresh count, mechanical and above all manual, is likely to work to VicePresident Al Gore's advantage.

Everyone knows, however, that were Mr Bush trailing Mr Baker would be fighting tooth and elegant nail to keep the counts going as long as possible. Were a threadbare Gore lead in jeopardy, Mr Christopher would be trying to cut off any further recount. Instead, he describes the decision of Katherine Harris, the Florida Secretary of State, to insist on this evening's deadline for certification of the vote, as "arbitrary and unreasonable". In Christopher-speak, that is a declaration of war.

Mr Baker and Mr Christopher are backstage figures, executors rather than leaders. Mr Baker did fight and lose one public election in his life, for Texas attorney general in 1978. Four years ago, he even briefly contemplated a run for the presidency, before realising his political base within the Republican Party was zero.

Mr Christopher, so kind and accessible but hampered by a gravelly voice, lugubrious manner and almost suffocating discretion, is anything but a man for the hustings - and he has never ventured there. Diplomacy and law at the highest levels are his stock in trade.

Under President Johnson he headed a commission to investigate the race riots across the US in the late 1960s; in 1991 he had a similar role during the Bush administration, looking into racism in the Los Angeles Police Department after the beating of the black motorist Rodney King. Under President Jimmy Carter he served as Deputy Secretary of State, almost pulling off the pre-election release of the Tehran embassy hostages in 1980.

He handled the Clinton transition in 1992, before serving as Secretary of State for the first Clinton term. If only, some say, he had been as forceful against Slobodan Milosevic as he has been against Republican manoeuvring in Florida.

But Mr Baker is his match in service to presidents, in his case Republican. He managed Gerald Ford's election campaign in 1976, and as Chief of Staff in the first Reagan term ran what is seen as the most efficient White House in memory. In 1988, he led the campaign of George Bush Sr, and was rewarded with the State Department before being summoned back to the White House, three months before election day, in a doomed effort to thwart a Clinton victory in 1992. Now another Bush has now called upon the consigliere's services, hoping for a different result.