What If ...

If the polls are right, and this does indeed turn out to be one of the closest presidential elections in American history, then you can be sure of one thing: Whoever loses will be subjected to a blistering barrage of second-guessing and Monday morning quarterbacking.

Landslides, by definition, do not lend themselves to excessive displays of hand wringing and finger pointing. Candidates who get buried in an avalanche of electoral votes generally emerge from the experience with a certain serenity and resignation that comes from knowing that no matter what else they might have done, it would not have affected the outcome.

But for losing horses that get nipped at the wire, there is no escape from the blame game or the "what if" game.

Decades after John F. Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon in 1960 by just two/tenths of 1 percentage point, many Republicans were still brooding about how Nixon was betrayed by a lousy make-up job during his first television debate with Kennedy. To the GOP faithful, it cost Nixon the election and therefore ranks as the worst cosmetic calamity in the history of grooming.

Eight years later, Nixon once again took a strong early lead and drove it to the edge of a cliff. But this time, he prevailed, defeating Hubert Humphrey by a margin almost as slim as Kennedy's victory in 1960.

Humphrey's dramatic surge was set in motion by a late September speech in which, for the first time, he distanced himself from President Lyndon Johnson's war policies in Vietnam. Many Democrats bitterly blamed Humphrey for not having made the break earlier, claiming that if he had, it would have allowed more time to rally to his banner the antiwar activists whose support he desperately needed.

And eight years after that, there was another squeaker. When President Gerald Ford narrowly lost to Jimmy Carter, many unhappy Republicans cited two major reasons for Ford's failure.

One was his decision to pardon Nixon just one month after he succeeded the only president ever to resign from the office rather than endure an impeachment trial - and certain conviction. And the other was his choice of running mate, Bob Dole, who was generally perceived to be a far less appealing candidate than his Democratic counterpart, Walter Mondale.

Those three elections - 1960, '68 and '76 - have the distinction of being the only presidential contests over the last half of the 20th Century that kept us in suspense deep into the early morning hours on Election Night.

And now, as we brace ourselves for what promises to be the tightest race since the Kennedy-Nixon nail-biter in '60, let's give some thought to how the fault-finders will direct their fire in the sober aftermath of the 2000 election.

First, some of the likely reactions if the loser is George W. Bush:

1) Like Ford in '76, Bush would surely be chastised for his choice of running mate. Remember that back in July, when he picked Dick Cheney, Governor Bush was riding the high wave of a doube-digital lead over Al Gore. So he felt he had the luxury of looking beyond the election and selecting a number two who would help him govern rather than one who would merely help him win the campaign. That was then, and a defeat would clearly expose the flaws in that strategy.

The selection of Cheney will be especially hard to justify if Bush loses Pennsylvania and that loss is viewed as a critical reason for his overall defeat. On the short list of those being considered for the veep slot last summer was Tom Ridge, the popular governor of the Keystone State. Thus it would surely be argued that with Ridge on the ticket, Bush would have carried Pennsylvania and perhaps other battleground states as well.

2) Complacency in Florida. A Gore victory there would no doubt be the most bitter pill of all for the Bush camp to swallow. From the moment they launched their campaign, the Bush strategists have pinpointed Texas and Florida (where brother Jeb is the governor) as the twin cornerstones of their entire electoral edifice.

Those two states - which rank third and fourth in electoral strength - were considered essential to Bush reaching the magic number of 270 that is needed to win. Neither of them was even supposed to be in play, and if Florida does land in the Gore column, critics will have a field day castigating Bush for taking the Sunshine State for granted.

3) In the aftermath of the three television encounters between Bush and Gore (the so-called debates), a sharp surge in the polls gave Bush a clear but hardly commanding lead in the polls. And since then, the governor has campaigned with the breezy insouciance of a man who believes he's already wrapped up the election.

The most convincing evidence of Bush's premature mood of triumph came on Sunday, Oct. 29, when he took an entire day off from the campaign trail. The decision to make no campaign appearances just nine days before a hotly contested election reflected his very confident attitude during the closing weeks of the race, and would be remembered negatively in the wake of a Bush defeat. Some carpers might even invoke the name of Thomas Dewey, another Republican governor from a large state who lost an election he assumed he already had locked up.

Now for reactions that would likely follow a Gore defeat.

1) His performance in the first face-to-face television exchange with Bush when his visual reactions to the governor - disdainful sighs and derisive eye-rolling - had such a negative impact on viewers that they overshadowed the fact that Gore was judged, in polls, to have had a decisive edge on the issues.

What voters saw that night was the least appealing side of Gore's personality - what some describe as his arrogance - and it made a strong impression, especially when contrasted with Bush's easygoing amiability. During the period when the candidates had their three encounters, there was a shift in the polls from a pro-Gore tilt to a clear edge for Bush. If Gore oses the election, his demeanor during the debates will be cited by critics as the decisive turn that put him squarely on the road to defeat.

2) If Ralph Nader takes enough votes away from Gore in two or three key states to move those states into Bush's column, that alone could be decisive in a close election. And if that does happen, Gore will be harshly scolded for moving too slowly and too timidly to blunt the Nader challenge. Some critics might also contend that the Gore camp made a strategic mistake when it took the position that Nader (and Pat Buchanan) should be excluded from the television debates.

Had Nader been part of the show, questions no doubt would have revealed that on most major environmental issues, Gore is much closer to Nader than he is to Bush - and that would have undermined Nader's claim that there's little or no difference between the two major candidates. In other words, Gore could have used some of Nader's pet issues to his own advantage and that might have gone far toward diminishing the Nader threat.

3) But the strongest and most severe case made by the Democratic fault-finders almost surely would center on Gore's reluctance to wrap himself in the mantle of the administration in which he has served for the past eight years. Almost from the time the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, there has been an intriguing duality in the public perception of President Clinton: Highly negative ratings in the area of personal conduct and character, but highly positive numbers in job performance.

The question that could well haunt Gore for years to come is why he chose to throw out the baby with the bath water. Policies initiated in the Clinton White House helped to produce the greatest economic boom in U.S. history. And there were notable successes in other areas as well, and in many of them Gore played an active and critical role. Should he lose, many Democrats would never forgive him for not running vigorously on the record he helped to build and for failing to draw a strong contrast between that record and the one he and Bill Clinton inherited eight years ago.

So, regardless of who the loser is Tuesday night, the fingers of blame will move into point position within days, even hours, after the election. And there will no shortage of targets to draw their attention.