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Election 2000 rewrites the rules of U.S. politics

WASHINGTON - In less than a week, millions of Americans have had the equivalent of a semester's worth of civics classes - lessons that most of their predecessors never had to learn.

Around the country, people who never have taken political science courses are talking knowledgeably of certification of votes, “faithless'' vs. “faithful'' electors and “butterfly ballots.''

But there are other lessons from the election. Most are less controversial than the ins and outs of the Electoral College and the arcane points of Florida election law.

Such lessons are case studies in public relations, political expediency, and social trends.

This week, Florida may certify the results of the election based on its recount, which going into the weekend showed Texas Gov. George Bush winning the state's 25 electoral votes. Or it may not.

And a judge will hold a hearing on West Palm Beach County's now notorious ballots.

Next Friday, the nation will know the results of Florida's absentee ballots from overseas - mainly Jewish voters living in Israel and military personnel stationed abroad who call Florida home, largely because of relatively low taxes and the state's military bases.

On that day, Mr. Bush has signaled, if the absentee ballots confirm his lead, no matter how slight, he will consider himself the president-elect.

And if Mr. Bush's slight lead in the vote count holds, Vice President Gore, who has dismantled his Nashville campaign office and moved back to Washington, will signal whether he intends to mount a legal challenge.

On Friday, Americans saw two entirely different strategies for winning public opinion - a game that continues even though it was supposed to end Nov. 7. Photographers and reporters were ushered into a session in Austin with Mr. Bush where he was meeting with aides who would be in his cabinet if he becomes president. In the plain language he says he likes, he was planning his transition to be the 43rd president.

Mr. Bush was quite candid about his intent. “Should I assume the presidency,'' he said, Americans should know that his administration would be “planned well.''

He added, “I am in the process of planning in a responsible way'' and if the verdict “that has been announced this far be confirmed, we will be ready and that's what the country should know.''

At the same time, Mr. Gore was shown on the leaf-covered lawn of the Vice President's Mansion on Massachusetts Avenue here playing touch football with his family, taking the federal holiday off on Veterans Day.

The not-so-subtle message was that Mr. Gore is a nice guy, equally confident of winning the White House. Some aides said he was worried about seeming too aggressive after his campaign manager, Bill Daley, son of the former Chicago mayor, suggested Mr. Gore may be willing to go to court to contest Florida's election results.

Thus Lesson No. 1: Presidential candidates, whether they win or lose, cannot afford to stop playing the public-relations game. Mr. Gore is struggling to repair perceived damage that he may be willing to put the country through a constitutional crisis to be president. Mr. Bush is struggling to show that he is studying hard to be ready to be president.

The fallout from the botched TV reporting of election results is still sifting down across the nation, raising new questions about other states' balloting. Because the Gore camp listened to the networks prematurely call him the winner in Florida and then call him the loser and Mr. Bush the winner of the election, he then made a concession call to Mr. Bush, which he later had to retract in an embarrassing about-face. But Mr. Bush assumed he was the president-elect without either the electoral vote sewed up or the popular vote.

That is Lesson No. 2: Leaders must not act without the facts.

The candidates for the last 18 months worked themselves to exhaustion to excite the voters, stir them up, and win them over. Each man convinced about half those who voted he was the right man for the job. But not until there was a reason to get excited - an election too close to call, did voters get excited.

Thus Lesson No. 3: Nationwide, the people will not be whipped into passionate political discourse unless there is a legitimate reason for it.

Throughout the tension of the past few days, there was a palpable yearning for signs of wisdom and statesmanship. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin said the best outcome will be that one man will emerge president and one man will emerge a hero.

This weekend Democratic emissaries have been calling Mr. Gore on the telephone and speaking to him via the media not to take the disputed ballots to court, citing the disruption and uncertainty to the country. There have been pleas for Mr. Bush not to seem precipitous or arrogant.

Abroad, there are pleas for America to be responsible. The Economist, a respected London-based publication, said: “An America at war with itself is not just a domestic problem, but a burden that the whole world would have to shoulder.... Many of the world's smoldering crises - in the Middle East, the Balkans, West Africa, the Taiwan straits - cry out for the engaged attention of an American president.

“Yet it seems that the next president, whoever he may be, will be thinking most about how on earth to bolster his legitimacy and to keep control in his own country.''

And that is Lesson No. 4: There are very few times in life when politicians can truly be statesmen. History will remember who rose to the challenge and who did not.

As political scientists study the results of the most amazing election in recent times, they are struck by how many political “truisms'' bit the dust.

For the first time, both candidates decided that it was safe to talk about changing Social Security. The “third rail'' of American politics - touch it and your political life is over - proved to have no juice.

Conventional wisdom said the debates were supposed to be greased for a Gore victory; but the public did not see it that way, being impressed, instead that Mr. Gore was not able to demolish Mr. Bush.

Mr. Bush thought promising a big tax cut would be a political no-brainer; instead, most people say they do not expect to see a tax cut.

This was supposed to be the year of issues, but, instead, it was the year of personality. Both politicians were eager to show their human side on the TV shows of Oprah, Queen Latifah, and Jay Leno.

This was supposed to be the year of campaign-finance reform. But a record amount of money - probably $3 billion - was spent on the elections.

It is not always true that the people speak with one mind. Sometimes, the people speak with forked tongue.

Lesson No. 5: The old rules of politics are being rewritten faster than seems possible. Tomorrow's political winners will be those who are fastest at figuring that out.

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