Neither side wants to concede defeat.

But to GOP, it seems especially agonizing.

The e-mail couldn't be more blunt. "THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION IS ABOUT TO BE STOLEN!"

It continues with a request for recipients to back a petition protesting the ballot hand counts in Florida. "TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE!" the message concludes. "Please sign today!"

Inflammatory rhetoric? Perhaps. But this message is being widely circulated among delegates to this year's Republican convention in Philadelphia. It reflects the mood of many in the rank-and-file GOP.

It may be evidence of something else: The longest and most bitter post-election struggle in American history may have reached the point where a significant number of voters will question the right of the next president to govern.

Republican activists and elected officials seem particularly incensed about the Gore campaign's efforts. They were more enthusiastic about their candidate to begin with, and hungrier for victory. And on election night, however briefly, they thought victory was theirs.

"It seems to them that all this could undo something they've won," says George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University in College Station.

This does not mean that Vice President Al Gore and his Democratic backers are preparing to gracefully disappear. His campaign spokesmen continue to refer to his popular vote lead in an effort to legitimize their efforts. By all accounts, Mr. Gore appears to genuinely believe that he was the choice of a majority of Florida voters, if not the winner of a majority of machine-counted votes.

But on the Democratic side, a rough consensus seems to be emerging as to how far their candidate should press his case. For example, prominent members of the party have indicated their uneasiness in pursuing legal action to overturn Palm Beach County's election, on the grounds that its "butterfly" ballots were confusing.

The continuing hand counts in some Florida counties may, in the end, not produce enough votes for the vice president to overcome Texas Gov. George W. Bush's slim lead. Gore himself said as much on Tuesday night, in response to the Florida Supreme Court's decision to allow those counts to figure in final ballot totals.

But if the hand counts are completed, their results will at least give many Democratic partisans a feeling of finality. Gore might decide to press on regardless. But at this point, his rhetoric, which has become noticeably softer since the Florida Supreme Court decision, indicates that he might not.

"The indications are that the vice president is prepared to accept Bush [as the winner]," says Thomas Mann, a senior government scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "But the reverse cannot be said."

The words coming from the Republican side have, if anything, become tougher in recent days. Elected GOP officials have walked right up to the edge of calling a prospective Gore presidency illegal, if not illegitimate.

House Republicans have been particularly outspoken. Tuesday night, the fourth-ranking member of the House GOP leadership, Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, said that Vice President Gore is "a candidate who will not win or lose honorably, but will try to do so through cutthroat tactics that eight years under President Clinton have taught him."

This hardening position is partly the logical result of the Bush team's initial decision to challenge Florida hand counts in Democratic counties, rather than calling for corresponding counts in Republican counties. That decision allows only two outcomes: either Bush wins, or the process is flawed.

Many in the GOP appear to genuinely believe that Democratic counters are creating Gore votes by manipulating ballot chads.

The context of the election is also a major contributor to the GOP's mounting fury. The party was enthusiastic about its candidate, and eager to win back the White House after eight years in executive branch wilderness.

The continued public approval of the Clinton administration's job performance has driven many Republican lawmakers to distraction. There may be a feeling in the House GOP that after being snookered by a card sharp for eight years, his protege could be about to do it again.

"It will be impeachment, the sequel, if Gore wins. Republicans are not psychologically prepared to accept a Gore presidency," says Marshall Wittmann, a political analyst at the Washington-based Hudson Institute.

Mr. Wittmann adds that the irony here is that this struggle is not occurring over great issues that cleave the nation, like Vietnam, but is between two centrists over power, pure and simple.

"It's about pure, unadulterated partisanship," he says. "The banality of this moment increases the venality."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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