Gore likely to end the loser even if he wins the fight

The Contenders
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The Independent US

Here, tentatively, is the good news for Al Gore: If he can somehow pull the presidential election out of the hat, convince the country that he is the deserving occupant of the Oval Office for the next four years, extract a clean and gracious concession from his opponent, George W Bush, and rally the fractious forces within his own ranks to grant him even a semblance of a honeymoon period once he takes the oath of office, he might actually be able to get his administration off to a rollicking good start.

Here, tentatively, is the good news for Al Gore: If he can somehow pull the presidential election out of the hat, convince the country that he is the deserving occupant of the Oval Office for the next four years, extract a clean and gracious concession from his opponent, George W Bush, and rally the fractious forces within his own ranks to grant him even a semblance of a honeymoon period once he takes the oath of office, he might actually be able to get his administration off to a rollicking good start.

Although the Democrats failed to clinch control of either the Senate or the House of Representatives, there is now a majority - albeit a slim one - for two of the central planks of his legislative programme: a bipartisan campaign finance reform that would clean up some of the worst excesses of corporate influence-peddling in US politics, and a bill that would pay for prescription drugs for senior citizens.

Passing one or both of these measures would go a long way to dispel the vicious stalemate created by this closest of close elections and give Mr Gore the kind of boost he would desperately need to rise above the current atmosphere of gridlock and recrimination.

On the other hand, it is a very long shot indeed. Compared with the options facing Mr Bush - either the White House, with slim Republican majorities to bolster him, or an entirely honourable defeat - the "ifs" facing Mr Gore are so numerous that a growing number of Democrats are beginning to wonder whether he shouldn't back down rather than face a perilous battle he has no certainty of winning.

Short of a last-minute piece of luck that would tip Florida to Mr Gore without a court battle (if absentee ballots and the manual recount now under way in some counties were to overturn Mr Bush's razor-thin lead), further attempts to stake his claim to the White House might well do him more harm than good.

Instead of forging bipartisan majorities in Congress for his programmes, a President Gore might find the Republican Party battening down the hatches and refusing to co-operate on anything. If the Republicans looked bloody-minded in their efforts to dig up dirt on Bill Clinton, one can only imagine the war of attrition they would unleash against a man whose very legitimacy in office would be open to constant questioning.

Robert Torricelli, the Democratic Senator from New Jersey, perhaps put it best when he said: "I want Al Gore to win the election, but more than that I want somebody to win this election." He and other senior party figures are now begging their candidate to think twice about legal action.

As the war of words between the two camps heats up, one can't help reflecting how much more comfortable the Bush camp's position is. The Republicans can be thrilled that their man has done as well as he has. Even if he is shut out of the White House, he will remain in office as governor of Texas and will be regarded as a hero by his supporters.

For Mr Gore, however, defeat would carry a devastating personal price. He could not have asked for a better set of circumstances for his presidential bid. And yet Mr Gore has thrown most, if not all, of this advantage away. The Republicans could end up in control of the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives for the first time since 1954; whatever can be salvaged from the wreckage, including the presidency, is not going to alter the picture of an opportunity royally squandered.

Already the recriminations have begun. The consensus is that if he loses the White House, his political career will be finished. Mr Bush, on the other hand, has relatively little to lose. His move to the political centre and his message of "compassionate conservatism" will almost certainly remain the order of the day for any future Republican presidential candidate.

Even if his political career does not work out, one senses Mr Bush will do fine.

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