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Rothenberg One of the nation's top political analysts, Stuart Rothenberg, dissects politics at the congressional and statewide levels.

Stuart Rothenberg: Now what?

The Supreme Court's complicated opinion in the presidential race, with seven justices saying that the Florida hand recount violated the Constitution and five saying that a timely recount is impossible, all but ends the 2000 presidential election. Texas Gov. George W. Bush has won.

Democrats have already started to turn on Vice President Al Gore, and as the impact of the Court's decision sets in over the next few hours, those calls for him to exit the race gracefully will increase.

Now what?

Bush advisor James Baker's very short statement on Tuesday evening, after the Court's decision was announced, showed how delicately the Texas governor's campaign is treading. Bush is trying to be gracious in victory because he hopes that Gore will be gracious in defeat.

And he likely will, if only to preserve his options for 2004. Some Democrats will insist that Gore shouldn't give up yet. But they are less concerned with the vice president's reputation than with making a statement and taking a stand.

Of course, defeat won't be easy for Gore to swallow. With some Democrats saying the "butterfly ballot" confused them and others complaining that they were prevented from voting, it isn't surprising that the vice president feels that he is the one who should be sworn in on Jan. 20.

Gore, of course, has nobody but himself to blame for his defeat. If he had carried his home state or reliably Democratic West Virginia, he wouldn't have had to worry about Florida. With all his assets, Gore should have been impossible to defeat.

Bush's first task will be to bring the country together. He'll obviously talk about our common values and goals as he seeks to rally the public behind his new administration. And he'll try to put together a cabinet that shows he's both principled and reasonable.

But even his likely selections of two African Americans, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, isn't likely to placate black Americans. That community went 90 percent for Gore according to exit polls, and savvy observers of the African-American community tell me that Powell is more likely to hurt his own reputation among blacks than he is to improve Bush's standing if and when he joins the cabinet.

While some Democrats will point to 2002 as their opportunity to pay back Bush for Florida, the Texan's success in the White House depends largely on the economy's health. If the economy settles into a soft landing and Americans remain content, Bush has a chance to survive 2002 in relative political health.

To succeed, Bush needs to remember that he promised to bring a new style and tone to Washington. He'll need to reach out to Democrats in Washington, and he'll need to offer new solutions to old problems.

Democrats on Capitol Hill aren't likely to give Bush a break simply because that's the nice thing to do. He has to convince them that they have to deal with him in a fair way. If his poll numbers sink or the economy falters, that will be impossible.

But politics is all about expectations, and everyone thinks that the Washington atmosphere is so sour that Bush can't possibly succeed. That could serve him well if he acknowledges his difficulties and asks for the public's support.


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Wednesday, December 13, 2000

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