Slowly but surely, Al Gore's extraordinary legal struggle to win the presidency of the United States appears to be falling short in the most important courtroom in the land: the court of the public's hearts and minds.
On the whole, voters have been far more relaxed about the ups and downs of Indecision 2000 than have the pundits. Substantial majorities in many polls have indicated that they have the patience to wait out the Gore team's challenges to Florida's vote.
But patience has its limits. Surveys now present a somewhat mixed message, but when crunched together the numbers indicate a majority of Americans may now be saying something like this: If the system was perfect, Vice President Gore might have won in Florida. But the system isn't perfectible. It could be time to move on.
Gary Hochstetler, for one, has had enough. He voted for Gore. He backed the vice president through counts and recounts. Now, "time's up," says the stout, mustachioed Massachusetts native.
In Boston's Prudential Center mall to do some holiday shopping, he's transfixed by Sega Dreamcast's newest football video game, showing on a TV in a store beside him. When he talks about the election, his words are slow, measured, and have an air of finality. "Everyone has a right for a ballot recount, but it's just gone too far," he adds. "I don't think this should be decided in the courts."
Nearby, a New Jersey insurance commissioner in town for a conference says he's willing to wait a little longer - but not much. Gore, he suggests, is hanging by a thread. "He should finish the process that he started with the appeal to the Florida Supreme Court, and if he's unsuccessful, he should concede," says a silver-haired Leonard Fisher.
Mr. Fisher, who grew up in Massachusetts, speaks with an uncle's kindness, and he knows his stuff - talking intelligently about the array of lawsuits percolating in the Florida courts. But like Mr. Hochstetler, he speaks as if the conclusion is near at hand.
Marilyn Meadows, on the other hand, talks with a cast-iron certainty. Gore should give up. Now.
"Some said, 'Who put the "duh" in Florida?' I'm tired of it all," says Mrs. Meadows, in Boston with her husband, who's a city councilor in Hemet, Calif., and is attending a national meeting of city officials.
Dressed in dignified black, the white-haired Meadows says she voted for George W. Bush, and she's had enough of the never-ending election. "It's time for [Gore] to own up to the fact that he lost," she says.
From the beginning both Gore and Mr. Bush realized that the outcome of their unprecedented fight would be determined in large part by how the public reacted to the nation's first post-election campaign.
Their efforts at shaping public perception were both large (the naming of transition teams to affect a presidential aura) and small (cramming as many US flags as possible into photo-op backgrounds).
But after weeks of remaining relatively stable, public opinion has begun to change somewhat in recent days. Gore's major legal setback this week - Florida Circuit Court Judge N. Sanders Sauls' rejection of his contest of the state vote - was both a legal and public relations blow. Asked in the wake of the ruling whether Gore should now concede, 59 percent of respondents to a Dec. 5 MSNBC poll said "yes." Last week, the same poll found that only 49 percent of those surveyed felt that way.
"The public is getting a little more tired and a little more exasperated with the process," says Karlyn Bowman, a public-opinion analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
That doesn't mean people want Bush to start laying out his jogging track on the White House grounds. The same poll found a bare majority, 52 percent, agreeing it was "too soon" for Bush to start naming members of his Cabinet.
The public's somewhat conflicted attitude toward the situation in Florida can also be found in the fact that some polls show majorities in favor of including hand-counted ballots in the final Florida tally - while others find that a majority of Americans feel hand-counting isn't necessarily the most accurate way to count votes.
The key to American opinion may lie in one finding of a Fox News poll: 68 percent of those surveyed felt that there were always inconsistencies in counting ballots. In other words, bad things happen. Our methods of voting are what they are.
Ardent Democrats also remain solidly in Gore's camp. A Gallup Poll found that 88 percent of Democrats still want the disputed ballots of Miami-Dade County counted. Eighty-six percent of Republicans oppose the move.
Consider the situation in Mount Washington, one of Los Angeles's oldest and most reliably Democratic neighborhoods. A fashionable getaway for silent-film stars early last century, it became a haven for the city's burgeoning Bohemian community of writers, artists, and musicians.
For Norman Sancho, it's a question of closure. Speaking in the kitchen of his yellow stucco home - and surrounded by towers of CDs and a tangle of music stands - the musician wants to make sure the country has all the information it needs to move on. "I would have [Gore] pursue it all the way to the end, so that in four years, all these issues are resolved," he says.
As far as concerns that the country could implode if this goes on much longer, people here have a simple answer. Hogwash. Some residents, in fact, see this as a beneficial test of America's most sacred political document.
"The Constitution is being tested. I think Gore should continue testing it until there's nothing else left for him to do," says K. Dickinson, while baking in her kitchen. "The Constitution is old, but it appears to be standing up."
Jim Blair contributed to this report from Los Angeles.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society