TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- As he finally claims the prize that has eluded him since Election Day, George W. Bush faces the challenge of broadening his support across a country fractured along lines of race, gender, values and geography.
The bitterly divided Supreme Court decision effectively ending the race -- with five conservative justices siding with Bush, and four moderate-to-liberal justices with Al Gore -- provided a symbolically fitting finish for a campaign that split the nation between the two parties as evenly as any election since the late 19th century. This razor-thin partisan divide looms like a chasm beneath the presidency Bush will now claim.
The nation is likely to greet the president with a burst of good will and hopes of reconciliation. But the basic divisions in the country exposed through the election -- and the long twilight struggle after Nov. 7 -- are almost certain to reassert themselves, particularly as Bush moves toward implementing the more ideological components of his campaign agenda.
"The election left us with what we've known for a long time: There is no majority in this country," says Stanford University political scientist Morris Fiorina. "There are two deeply divided blocks, and there is a big center up for grabs and neither party has figured out how to capture it yet."
Not since the late 19th century -- and perhaps not ever -- has an American election produced an outcome this close to a tie. Assuming no electors switch when the electoral college meets next week, Bush will win with just 271 electoral college votes to Gore's 267 -- the second narrowest majority in American history. He will become only the fourth president ever, and the first since 1888, to take office while losing the popular vote.
At the same time, the Senate will be split exactly in half between the parties for the first time since 1881; the Republican majority will be hanging on the health of two elderly GOP Southern Senators, Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina serving in states where their replacements, if needed, would be appointed by Democratic governors. Meanwhile, in the House, Republicans will hold just three seats more than the 218 needed to pass legislation.
This narrow division by itself guarantees enormous headaches for the next president. The problem is even more complex because the parties are not only at parity, but polarized at the same time. Though Gore and Bush received almost exactly the same number of votes on election day, they mobilized virtually mirror image voter coalitions that hold antithetical views on most key issues.
As dramatically as any recent election, this campaign painted a portrait of two nations, divided more by values than income. Gore won three-fifths of urban voters, Bush three-fifths of rural voters, with the suburbs, where the two men split almost evenly, serving as the DMZ. Gore dominated the east and west coasts; Bush the heartland. With his victory in Florida, Bush won every southern state; Gore carried 71 percent of the electoral votes outside of the South.
All of these cultural and geographic divisions are evident -- and even accentuated -- in Congress. In both chambers, Republican control hinges entirely on their strength in the South, the country's most conservative region. In 1994, for the first time since the Civil War, Republicans held a majority of House seats from both the South and the non-South. But since then, the Democrats have overtaken the GOP outside the South in both chambers.
In the House, the GOP holds a 27 seat advantage in the 13 Southern states -- but Democrats hold 18 more seats in the states outside the South. Likewise, in the Senate, the Southern states provide Republicans an eight-seat advantage; Democrats lead by eight seats everywhere else.
This regional, and ideological, concentration magnifies Bush's challenge. On the one hand, he must hold a Southern and religiously devout base that is culturally conservative, opposed to abortion and gun control, and skeptical of new federal activism; on the other, he must reach out to much more moderate voters, particularly in the Northern and Midwestern suburbs that may represent his best hope of building an electoral majority, notes Emery University political scientist Merle Black, an expert on Southern politics.
"They really do have to reach out or they are going to govern themselves right out of office," Black said. "There certainly isn't any evidence that people across the United States have the same view, in the same proportions, as the Southerners do. So while that's the base of the party, if Bush is to have any long term success, he has to reach out to Democrats and independents across the country."
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