A Wounded Presidency?

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CBS/AP
With the word that the outcome of the election in Florida may not be known until Thursday night, Al Gore and George W. Bush are suspended in electoral amber like dueling scorpions, tied in the popular vote, Gore leading 262-246 in the Electoral College, and the outcome of the whole thing riding on Florida's 25 electoral votes.

Almost two years since Gore opened his presidential exploratory committee, 17 months after Bush announced his candidacy, three debates and $3 billion later, Americans awakened to the news that nothing has changed.

In this age of live breaking news, "real time" video, instant analysis, instant messaging and prolific punditry, Americans will just have to wait while the Florida vote is recounted.

"Obviously the biggest question is who's going to win the presidency and when are we going know?" says political analyst Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. "But what follows from that is another set of very important questions: Will the winner in some way have his legitimacy tarnished, or challenged, or undermined? Tarnished because there might be a dispute over the vote in Florida, or because there might be this disparity between the popular vote and the electoral vote [if Bush wins Florida, but Gore gets more votes nationwide]. What kind of a mandate is a winner going to have under these circumstances? What kind of skill will it take - winning late, winning close, winning cloudy - to begin to move policy through Congress?"

Ornstein predicted Americans will want to close ranks behind the winner and legitimate the election swiftly.

Columbia University historian Alan Brinkley is less optimistic. He thinks both the president-elect and the process may be perceived by the people as illegitimate.

"People have been calling this the nightmare scenario, the train wreck scenario," he said of the possible split decision between the Electoral College and the popular vote. "Once the outcome of this particular election is settled, I think we're very likely to see a serious effort to abolish the Electoral College."

Such a narrow margin of victory means a "very weak" president, no matter who it is.

"Nothing is going to happen in Congress that the leaders of both parties in Congress don't want to happen," Brinkley said. In the event Bush wins, for example, "There is not going to be $1.3 trillion dollar tax cut. There is not going to be privatization of Social Security."

To govern, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich says the new president will have to reach out.

With "no comfortable natural majority," Gingrich says the public will judge the new president according to how he reaches out to voters who were not part of his winning plurality. For Gore, that means "rural and small town Americans;" for Bush, African-Americans and Latinos.

"Whoever wins, whether it's Gore with a Republican House and Senate, or Bush with less tan a majority of the vote, [the new president] will have to take a page from JFK, who won a close election and then had to grow his mandate." Kennedy, Gingrich says, was much stronger six months into his presidency because he "captured the imagination of the American people."

Gingrich, who has his own consulting firm and Web site, newt.org, predicts either man will include people from the other party in his Cabinet. "I cannot imagine in this kind of a setting either of them trying to govern in a narrowly partisan way."