The most important question arising from the extraordinary presidential election of 2000 may not be who won, but whether the nation will accept that the eventual winner was fairly chosen.
A president pursued by doubts about his legitimacy would be hobbled in dealings with Congress, foreign governments, and even (perhaps especially) the press. If the situation festers, it could undermine one of America's proudest boasts: that it is a nation of orderly laws, not capricious men.
Yet it now appears an election in which 100 million votes were cast could be decided by about a condo's-worth of Floridians.
In such a situation, opportunities for missteps by both Al Gore and George W. Bush and their followers abound.
The manner in which Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush handle the situation over the next several days could be critical.
"This is a once-in-a-century cluster of events that pose an extraordinary challenge to our political class and our political leaders: to manage a situation that has a potential to do serious damage to ... our constitutional system," says Thomas Mann, a government-studies scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
The last time America faced such an uncertain outcome in its presidential race, in 1960, Richard Nixon conceded to John F. Kennedy and slipped gently into the night - even though he was convinced that fraud had made the difference. Nixon lost to Kennedy by only 0.2 percent of the vote.
Although Nixon was not a man known for giving political quarter, he quickly forswore any court challenge.
In later years, he said he was both worried about the nation and his own image. It proved a shrewd move: a "sore loser" tag might have made his 1968 comeback victory impossible.
For his part, JFK acknowledged the slimness of his margin by appointing Republicans as secretary of Defense and secretary of the Treasury. Such a show of bipartisanship might help soothe lingering bitterness from this year's vote.
If George W. Bush wins, for instance, "he might be smart to appoint some Democrats to the Cabinet," says Thomas Cronin, a presidential scholar and president of Whitman College in Walla, Walla, Wash.
The electoral effect
The relationship between the popular vote totals and the election's possible outcome is one factor creating the current delicate situation.
At time of writing it appeared possible that the candidate who received the most ballots will not be the one who sits in the Oval Office come January, thanks to the arcane US Electoral College system.
Americans schooled on the virtues of majority rule might find this difficult to accept. The last time a similar situation occurred was in the election of 1888, in a far different political and cultural era.
The disparity could increase pressure to adapt an 18th-century political mechanism to modern times.
But the candidates ran their campaigns under the existing system, and to try to change the rules in retrospect would be grossly unfair.
In any case, the positive aspects of the Electoral College still apply, note scholars. It forces candidates to try to appeal to a wide swath of the nation. If the election was determined by popular vote, there might now be recounts under way in 50 states, not one.
"If we switched systems, I'm pretty sure people would quickly get nostalgic for the Electoral College," says Thomas Cronin.
More problematic in coming days may be the situation in Florida.
It is virtually without precedent in American history and has the potential to explode into a lasting controversy which colors the entire term of the nation's next chief executive.
At time of writing, the state's recount was not yet complete.
It might yet provide a definitive answer to the question of who won Florida's decisive 25 electoral votes.
Or the question might not be settled until next week, after the deadline for the arrival of absentee ballots from state residents currently out of the country.
Palm Beach's ballots
Or it might not be settled even then. The fracas in Palm Beach County, where some voters, are complaining that poorly designed ballots caused them to vote for Pat Buchanan instead of Gore, could be the subject of legal challenges that hold the very outcome of the election in question.
Mr. Buchanan, the Reform Party candidate, did do disproportionately well in Palm Beach, at least nominally a Democratic area.
Privately, Democrats maintain that the ballots, marked with a misleading arrow, caused 2,000 voters to cast mistaken ballots - more than enough to swing the presidency itself.
The result might be that millions of Americans will believe Gore won Florida, but that Bush will be awarded Florida and thus the Oval Office.
"Bush and Gore need to get together to figure out how to deal with this enormous feeling of injustice," says Paul Light, vice president and director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution here.
"There was a problem with the way that ballot was configured."
Staff writers Gail Russell Chaddock and Abraham McLaughlin in Washington contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society