Seven weeks to put their people in place before the official handover

The Transition
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The Independent US

Shortly after dawn breaks in America today - assuming the victor is known - some small but priceless symbols of power will be handed over. Jane Huber, head of the US government's Presidential Transition Support unit, will give out the electronic passkeys to 90,000 sq ft of empty office space two blocks from the White House. The recipient will be a close aide of either Al Gore or George W Bush, and one of the least sung but most important phases of election year will begin.

Shortly after dawn breaks in America today - assuming the victor is known - some small but priceless symbols of power will be handed over. Jane Huber, head of the US government's Presidential Transition Support unit, will give out the electronic passkeys to 90,000 sq ft of empty office space two blocks from the White House. The recipient will be a close aide of either Al Gore or George W Bush, and one of the least sung but most important phases of election year will begin.

The interval, this year of 74 days, between the actual vote and the inauguration of the new President, is a peculiarly vulnerable moment in the American way of government; short-term power resides with a President whose writ runs barely seven more weeks, but his elected successor, even though he does not have a functioning administration, is the man everyone at home and abroad is already wanting to do business with.

Though neither side advertises the fact for fear of appearing over-confident, trusted associates of Mr Gore and Mr Bush have been quietly working on transition arrangements for weeks. Republicans and Democrats have lined up teams to handle the transfer of power and begin the installation of a new administration, but that does not lessen the difficult psychological change from break-neck campaigning to slower, daily grind of governing.

The tasks are manifold. First they must decide policy priorities, and conduct soundings with the leadership of the new Congress. Next the inaugural address that the 43rd President will deliver from the steps of the Capitol on 20 January must be drafted, followed by his speech soon after to Congress setting out a legislative agenda.

There are the detailed security briefings from the CIA, the National Security Council and the State Department. And even before the new President enters the Oval Office, aides will be drawing up an outline 2001-02 budget, due within weeks of the inauguration. For Republicans and Democrats alike, the example to avoid is 1992, when Bill Clinton preferred waffly policy seminars in Little Rock to making essential personnel and organisational decisions. This guaranteed that his first weeks as President would be an undisciplined shambles, when some key aides didn't even have security clearances.

Whoever wins may within the next few days announce the names of a few key top officials such as White House chief of staff and Secretary of State. For Mr Bush, former Joint Chiefs chairman Colin Powell is a prime candidate. Richard Holbrooke, the current US Ambassador to the United Nations, or the former Maine senator and Northern Ireland mediator George Mitchell, are possible choices if Gore wins.

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