WASHINGTON - It is appropriate that the presidential election of 2000 has reached the political equivalent of a scoreless tie. From the outset, neither Vice President Al Gore nor Gov. George W. Bush has been able to close the sale with the American people.
On the contrary, the questions that existed about both candidates when the polling places opened 10 days ago are precisely the same as they were during the primary season: Does Bush have the basic qualifications to serve as president? Can Americans come to like Gore enough to accept the prospect of him as president?
The notion of choosing the lesser of two evils has become a cliche in American politics. But usually one candidate or the other resolves the doubts about himself well enough to take a commanding, or at least respectable, lead by Election Day.
Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Bill Clinton in 1992 became their parties' presidential nominees without having proved themselves fully acceptable to the electorate but then managed to do so in the general election campaign. Not so this time.
The indecision being displayed so dramatically in Florida has been evident all year. Each time that one candidate would move ahead in the opinion polls for a week or two, the electorate would reverse itself. If Bush were ahead, it seemed that the voters would decide, on closer examination, that he lacked the intellectual weight - "gravitas" became the buzzword of choice - to occupy the Oval Office.
Alternately, every time Gore took the lead, the voters would find his manner too patronizing and contrived to accept. Privately, prominent Democratic supporters of the vice president were hinting to the campaign that lowering the candidate's profile might be the wisest strategy.
What this suggests, of course, is that neither candidate can hope to emerge from the fiasco in Florida with the prestige and political momentum that winners usually enjoy. Neither can either expect the usual honeymoon respite from partisanship.
Americans like to invest their presidents-elect with qualities that may have been only dimly perceived, if seen at all, earlier in their careers. In this case, however, there will be less inclination for the winner to rewrite history and claim a glorious political success. Bush and Gore have evoked too much hostility within their parties.
With hindsight, Republicans are muttering, for example, that they should have paid a little more attention to the warning signal of the landslide defeat Bush suffered at the hands of John McCain in the New Hampshire primary.
After that loss, the Texas governor could fall back on his huge reserves of campaign money and on the support of the party establishment that is always so important in the Republican Party. (The maverick McCain was never their sort, of course. ) But what the Republicans chose to ignore were the pervasive reservations among independents and some Republicans about a candidate who didn't know Slovenia from Slovakia.
By the end of the campaign, some Republicans were grousing among themselves about hubris in the Bush operation leading to such strategic miscalculations as spending $12 million and several days of the candidate's time on the hopeless quest for California. But the essential problem was that, as one of his leading allies put it privately, "George just hasn't been very convincing."
The dismay with Gore within his party is even more intense. Indeed, among American politicians in both parties there is one central question about the 2000 election: How could Al Gore blow it? On paper, he should have won, professionals in both parties agree, by a comfortable margin, perhaps 10 percent or more.
Gore had it all. He was a quasi-incumbent representing an administration that has presided over the greatest economic boom in the nation's history. And, absent a threat to national security not on the horizon this time, Americans consistently vote their economic self-interest - assuming, obviously, that neither candidate is some kind of aberration advancing a lunatic agenda.
That was not the case here. Gore is a leader of long and substantial political experience with a resume that shows him more qualified for the office, at least in his familiarity with national concerns, than a second-term governor of Texas. And, finally, Gore has been the candidate on the "right" side of most of the issues of greatest concern to Americans now - among them, according to opinion surveys, Social Security, Medicare, prescription drugs, the environment and education.
Gore's campaign didn't attract much of the criticism, over strategy and tactics, that he might have expected given his failure to run away with the election. Though there was some quibbling with his choice of issues and electoral vote strategy, it was more widely recognized among Democrats and Republicans alike that it was the Gore persona that compromised him.
There is a story repeated in every election about the dog food manufacturer who calls his staff together and points to a chart showing sales plunging.
"I don't understand it," he says. "We use the best ingredients, we have the lowest prices and the best salesmen. What is the problem?"
To which a salesman replies: "Dogs won't eat it, J. B."
That same verdict could be applied to both candidates this year.