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We knew that the U.S. election was going to be close, but no one could have dreamed up the drama that has unfolded in the last 36 hours. The American public is as neatly divided as is possible: With over 96 million people going to the polls, the two candidates are separated by less than 1 percent of the votes cast. The final results hinge on a recount in Florida, and overseas ballots could determine the outcome. That division is the most important feature of this election: It will determine the policies of the new president, no matter who he may be.

With 25 electoral votes, the fourth-largest bloc, Florida has always been a key state in elections. It has never assumed the importance that it did in this year’s race, however. Because the state’s governor is the brother of Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican nominee, Florida was originally assumed to be safely in the hands of the GOP. But Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic nominee, campaigned hard, wooing the senior citizens who have considerable power in the state. His efforts paid off. When the polls closed, the first predictions named him the winner there. But the experts soon reversed course, calling the race too close to call.

Hours later, Mr. Bush was declared the winner, which gave him enough electoral votes to claim the presidency. Mr. Gore then conceded, but as the size of the margin became clear and the state initiated a mandatory recount, he withdrew his concession. With some 30,000 absentee ballots and a 1,200 vote margin, the results might not be known for days.

In many ways, they do not matter. The United States is divided, as Mr. David Broder, the dean of U.S. political analysts, argues in his article on the next page. By virtually every demographic measure, the country is split in two. Neither mainstream presidential candidate can claim to speak for all Americans, nor can either party. The top priority of the next president will be to bridge that yawning divide.

A daunting assignment at the best of times, in this situation constant effort and almost superhuman patience will be required. While both candidates ostensibly campaigned from the center, they did so after assuring their primary constituencies on the right and left. Both groups will demand rewards for their support, and satisfying them will antagonize the moderate voters the two candidates courted with such energy.

In addition, there are worsening relations between the White House and Congress. The last legislative session has been derided as a “do-nothing” Congress, as both parties jockeyed for position in the election. As a result, Congress is convening the first lame-duck session in years, and GOP leaders anticipate staring down President Bill Clinton with the election results in hand. A Gore win will not make them any more conciliatory.

During the campaign, Mr. Bush promised to transcend the partisanship of Washington politics. With the Republicans holding on to the Senate and House of Representatives, a Bush win would give the GOP control of both the executive and legislative branches for the first time since 1953-55. But given the razor-thin margin of his win, a Bush administration would not have the freedom to change the nation’s course.

One issue that the next president must address is campaign-finance reform. This year’s vote was the most expensive election ever, with both parties spending $3 billion, or 50 percent more than four years ago. Voters appear to be increasingly concerned about the impact of “money politics.” Mr. Bush was lukewarm about the issue, while Mr. Gore spoke of the need for reform. Whoever takes office will have to work with a Congress that is deeply suspicious of limits on campaign spending.

Money politics also raises questions about the role of Green Party candidate Ralph Nader in this election. With Mr. Nader claiming over 2 million votes — 95,000 of them in Florida — Democrats are asking whether an independent candidate will cost Mr. Gore the election, just as maverick Ross Perot cost Mr. Bush’s father re-election in 1992. Mr. Nader denied the charge that he was a “spoiler.” His call for a third party to protect against “the excesses of the monied interests” may sound like a rallying point for ordinary Americans, but in reality it results in the divisiveness that the overwhelming majority of U.S. voters reject.

During the campaign, both men made the contrasts between their positions clear. Americans had a clear choice about who the candidates were and what they stood for. Ironically, the results show that those positions are almost irrelevant. The next president has to bring the many sides of the U.S. together, governing as much for those who did not vote for him, as those who did.

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