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WASHINGTON — The U.S. presidential election will soon be over. Finally. And likely resulting in what most people expected all along: a George W. Bush victory.

Al Gore, who can prevail only through an improbable court decision overturning Florida’s original vote and series of recounts, now faces the greatest risk of fighting on. However, no one looks good after weeks of political and legal skirmishing.

* George W. Bush’s premature victory tour. Instead of hitting the battleground states — Iowa, New Mexico, Oregon and Wisconsin all narrowly fell to Gore, while Florida barely went for the Texas governor — an overconfident Bush visited states like New Jersey, which he had no chance of carrying. One more trip to Florida might have made the torturous recount unnecessary.

* Gore’s recision of his concession. Despite conservative grumbling, there’s no cause for complaint here. Florida almost chose the vice president. Had Bush prepared to yield based on the initial projection of Florida for Gore, he would certainly have backtracked when the state shifted into the undecided column.

* Recounts and recounts. Republicans have held up the supposed statesmanship of Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon in 1960 for not contesting his fraud-tainted losses in Illinois and Texas. But any investigation might have turned up GOP cows voting in downstate Illinois. Moreover, it is not obvious that covering up voter fraud was good for the country, even if it promoted short-term political stability.

Given the closeness of the margin, Gore was right to ask for a manual as well as a machine recount, as allowed by law. Although he exercised that option only in three Democratic counties, the Bush campaign chose not to request comparable reviews anywhere else — apparently because it didn’t believe they would deliver many votes.

* Dubious dimples. What made the recount process a license to steal was the bizarre attempt to discern the intent of voters who did not fully punch their ballots. Changing standards of counting “pregnant” chads allowed election personnel to turn partisan visions into Gore votes.

For this, however, blame not Al Gore but state law, which sets no recount standards, county officials, who made up the rules as they went along, and state judges, who baptized the grotesque process. Gore merely took advantage of the resulting opportunity.

* Dueling double standards. Although Gore would do anything to get elected, Bush also wants to win. And he would do almost anything to succeed.

For instance, while rightly decrying the Florida Supreme Court’s decision to substitute its own certification deadline for that set by the legislature, the Bush campaign advocated that counties ignore equally clear requirements for postmarks on absentee ballots. The present system is unfair to overseas military personnel. But both sides set aside principle in an attempt to garner votes.

* Litigation-happy politicians. Gore was always likely to end up in court since Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris is a Republican. Harris’ decisions have been reasonable — and she did not abuse her discretion, as implied by a very political decision by a very political state supreme court — but Democrats understandably question her objectivity.

At least the Gore cases have been filed in state court, where election law is usually decided. The Bush filings have been in federal court. It is hard for the Texas governor to criticize Gore’s challenge of the state certification while waiting for a U.S. Supreme Court ruling at his behest.

* The Electoral College. Conservatives have turned out in force to support this archaic institution that awards votes by state, but why? It could just have easily yielded a Gore victory with a popular-vote minority, the result predicted by many people prior to Nov. 7.

There are good reasons to establish restraints on majoritarianism, but there’s little evidence that the Electoral College does so. It usually magnifies the popular vote, providing an illusory “mandate” for the winner. Only by chance does the Electoral College weed out a dishonest and power-hungry candidate like Gore.

* Mindless protesters. Perhaps the most frightening image after the election was of the many people who demonstrated on behalf of either Bush or Gore.

Political hacks after a bureaucratic appointment had an obvious incentive to work for one or the other. But what normal person could enthusiastically support Bush or Gore?

One can predict that U.S. government will end up more expansive and expensive irrespective of which one triumphs. Gore is likely to push further, faster, but no one should have any illusion as to what a Bush presidency is likely to look like, especially with an enfeebled and unprincipled Republican majority in Congress.

The American people should unite. In hoping that the election ends.

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