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Rothenberg One of the nation's top political analysts, Stuart Rothenberg, dissects politics at the congressional and statewide levels.

Stuart Rothenberg: The 'Fat Lady' starts to sing

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Al Gore's recent legal defeats, combined with the likelihood that the Florida Legislature or the U.S. House of Representatives would act to ratify a George Bush victory, lead to only one conclusion for the vice president: He needs a miracle to carry Florida and win the White House.

But in a year when political twists and turns have been common, it's wise not to assume the presidential contest is over until it's actually over. While the Seminole County absentee ballot case seems unlikely to reverse a Bush victory, and the state Supreme Court would have to be crazy to overturn Judge Sauls decision on hand counts, I'm not declaring Bush the winner until he has taken the oath of office. Okay, I'm playing it safe.

Like Gore, most Democrats believe that the vice president really did get more votes in Florida than did Bush. But unlike him, they have for days accepted the inevitability of a Bush victory, at least privately.

Democrats in Congress haven't remained steadfastly loyal to the vice president in public because they are particularly fond of him. They aren't. But their partisan juices have begun to flow, and they don't like the tactics and tone of the Republicans. Moreover, some Democratic operatives have admitted that the longer the presidential contest lingers, the deeper the bitterness among Democrats -- and that could actually serve the party well in the 2002 and 2004 elections.

Assuming he loses, has Gore hurt his chances for 2004 by continuing to challenge the Florida results? Probably not. With the election so close and Gore following the prescribed legal route, he hasn't done anything all that out of the ordinary. If he had cut and run early, Democrats would have complained about his backbone. And if he had turned up his rhetoric, he would have looked nasty and bitter. His message -- "count all the ballots" -- has been consistent and reasonable, though not necessarily a winning argument.

Republicans are downright gleeful about Bush's prospects. The clock has always been in his favor, and while Bush isn't merely stalling the way Dean Smith's North Carolina basketball teams once did, his legal team has been well aware that the added time pressure limits Gore's options and must affect the way state and federal judges behave. The Florida Supreme Court's initial deadline for hand counting, for example, was based on the necessity of finishing all legal challenges before Dec. 12.

All the legal and political maneuvering by Gore and Bush has obscured the truly bizarre nature of the last month. What are the odds that one state could determine who'll be out next president? And what are the odds that the final results in that state would be decided by fewer than 1,000 votes? And what are the odds that the governor of that state would be the brother of one of the presidential nominees?

During my years reading and writing about American politics I have often thought that we could never see anything like what happened in the disputed election of 1876. But the 2000 election has taken the 1876 election one step further by putting it on television. It's in our living rooms every day -- not just being fought out in state and federal courts.

The difference, of course, between 2000 and 1876 is that this year's contest isn't about vote fraud and back room deals. It's a political fluke that wouldn't have happened if any of a number of other things had occurred.

What if the Elian Gonzalez case had never happened? What if Gore hadn't badgered Bush in the debates? What if Bush's DUI charge hadn't surfaced days before the election? What if Gore had spent more time in Tennessee, or Bill Clinton had worked overtime to deliver Arkansas? What if Bush hadn't wasted his time in New Jersey or California, but had spent some extra time in Wisconsin, New Mexico and Oregon?

What if? That's what either Gore or Bush will be thinking when it is finally all over. In the end, the line between victory and defeat is so narrow as to be virtually invisible.


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Wednesday, December 6, 2000

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