Fears raised eventual victor will be damaged by bitterness, undermining mandate to implement policy
Americans may be reassuring themselves that their democratic institutions can withstand the current electoral impasse, but less confidence is being expressed about the two presidential candidates.
The longer the uncertainty and bitterness drags on, the more it will detract from the ability of Republican George W. Bush or Democrat Al Gore to lead the nation, should they emerge victorious.
David Gergen, a Republican who has served five presidents including incumbent Bill Clinton, said neither Mr Gore nor Mr Bush had proved 'statesmanlike' in leading their rival teams over the past week. 'What has discouraged me has been the behaviour of the two candidates . . . no one is showing much leadership,' Mr Gergen said. 'Both sides are facing troubles with perceptions.'
John McCain, a Republican defeated by Mr Bush in the primary campaign, said if the war of words between the two camps proved a turn-off for the American public, that could be damaging to the victor. 'We are not in a constitutional crisis but the American people are growing weary . . . and whoever wins is having a rapidly diminishing mandate,' said the Arizona Senator.
Even before the extent of the Florida debacle emerged, it was clear that whoever won would need to quickly assert considerable leadership skills to outline a clear vision and begin implementing policy goals. Both men's platforms involve policy objectives across a range of domestic issues that would be deeply contentious at the best of times.
For Mr Bush, delivering a sweeping US$1,300 billion (HK$10,120 billion) tax cut over 10 years is already being talked of as a legislative impossibility unless he quickly forges bipartisan support once in office. The Republicans' weakened hold over both houses of Congress would make his task all the harder.
Some political insiders not involved directly with either campaign express surprise that the two camps have not tried to meet privately to cool tensions while the crisis is being worked out. 'There is a lack of leadership right there,' one veteran Democrat said. 'It is high stakes for everyone, sure, but it would be nice see a bit of dignity and foresight. It would go a long way to easing any fears of the public.'
Others fear a weakened White House and an even more divided Congress could make Washington less relevant to people's lives as state governments expand - over the long term - their roles and powers.
'It is going to be twice as important for the parties to work together,' said Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Senate's powerful Judiciary Committee. Veteran Republican Senator Orrin Hatch said: 'I just hope we can get through this in a way that can bring people together.'
However, other powerful congressional forces are more reticent on the subject of co-operation. Senate Majority Trent Lott has repeatedly warned that Mr Gore and the Democrats are trying to 'steal' the election with their Florida recounts.
The need to quickly show signs of leadership - a quality both candidates have struggled to show they possess - will make the winner's inaugural address even more important than usual.
'The new president will not just merely have to outlines his visions, but he will have to show how he will rule and bring people together,' one Republican National Committee official said. 'It may prove the most important speech of his term.'