One thing is certain, you ain't seen nothing yet

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After this rollercoaster ride of a political week, and the closest election in American history, when no bizarre twist can be ruled out, just one thing can be said with certainty. In the process to determine the next President, the next few days will be the roughest yet.

After this rollercoaster ride of a political week, and the closest election in American history, when no bizarre twist can be ruled out, just one thing can be said with certainty. In the process to determine the next President, the next few days will be the roughest yet.

As a rule Americans detest ties; in their favourite sports they have devised ways - whether extra innings, extra periods, or sudden death overtime - to produce a result on the night. But this time, confronted with the ultimate political tie, they seem prepared to be patient.

According to a poll in tomorrow's Newsweek, the public believes by a three to one margin that the priority is to ensure a fair and accurate vote count. But the patience is not inexhaustible; although Newsweek carried out its survey before laborious manual counting started at the weekend, a clear majority believes that Friday's deadline for absentee votes in Florida should be the cut-off point. That is also the prevailing view among the great and the good and in the editorial columns of the major newspapers; another week or so of uncertainty, fine. But that's it.

In reality, both Al Gore and George W Bush are playing on two chessboards simultaneously: one is the more straightforward terrain of hardball politics, and - as is already starting to happen - the courts. Unchecked, the fight could drag on for weeks, through the legal system and in reopened contests in other states where last Tuesday's result was also excruciatingly close: New Mexico, Oregon, Wisconsin and Iowa.

James Baker, leading the Bush team on the ground in Florida, was in hardball mode yesterday: there had to be "finality", but if the Democrats "go on calling for recount after recount until they get the result they want in Florida, then we may be forced to demand recounts in other states where we trail narrowly".

Likewise Mr Baker's opposite number in the Gore camp, Warren Christopher, another former secretary of state: the Florida mess should be settled "in a matter of days", he assured, only to add the proviso that the Vice-President had not ruled out filing a lawsuit of his own.

But the tactical decisions of both camps are heavily conditioned by what happens on the other chessboard, of public opinion. So far people are prepared to wait; but woe betide the man who appears a bad loser, or the man who treats the election as already won. Until the weekend Mr Gore was in danger of falling into the first trap; with his open talk of starting the transition to a new Administration, Mr Bush was flirting with the second mistake.

Events on the ground in Florida in the past 48 hours and the evidence from the partial manual recount that Mr Gore may edge ahead in the state's popular vote have probably made the Bush camp more vulnerable. He too must confront the agonisingly awkward calculation: the prize of the White House is huge - but so could be the punishment for the person the public judges to have unnecessarily prolonged the uncertainty.

Whoever accepts defeat gracefully may be certain of a footnote in history as the man who spared his country total political deadlock and, of more immediate consolation, of the near lock on his party's nomination to fight again in 2004. An over-tainted victory would make the Presidency a prize not worth having. This is not (or at least not yet) a constitutional crisis, nor a crisis of legitimacy. America in the past 40 years has seen far worse. There was the trauma of Watergate, which saw the resignation of a disgraced Richard Nixon and a President Ford who had not even been elected vice-president, and a dozen years before that the Kennedy assassination.

"Imagine how legitimate I felt," Lyndon Johnson confessed later to the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, "taking over from a President who had been shot dead in my home state." Compared with these national traumas, the present deadlock doesn't even come close. Democracy, messy and cumbersome, is still working as it should.

But the nightmare of fullblown constitutional crisis will grow if the impasse is allowed to drag on. Sooner or later someone will be the 43rd President, but the prospects of him being able to work smoothly with a partisan Congress split down the middle will diminish with every contentious day that passes.

In the best of circumstances, he will have to appoint members of the opposite party to senior jobs within his Cabinet and to govern from the centre. If the war-room mentality persists, and the struggle turns into a no-holds-barred war, even that may not be enough to produce properly functioning government.

In the end the resolution of the deadlock comes down to the two candidates themselves. "Both must behave in a manner and with a dignity worthy of the office they seek," says Sam Nunn - a former Democratic Senator but about as dispassionate an observer as can be found in the present superheated climate.

And maybe that exhortation is striking home. The moment when partisanship must give way to statesmanship is rapidly approaching.

On Saturday evening, after yet more consultations with Mr Christopher and other top advisers, the Gore family went to see the film Men of Honor at a north-west Washington cinema. Within a very few days, men of honour are what the United States of America will need above all else.