WASHINGTON - If, after all the courts have their say, George W. Bush takes office as the 43rd president of the United States on Jan. 20, he's likely to step into one of the thorniest political situations imaginable, his hold on the White House possibly as weak as the partisan rancor that now surrounds him is strong.
And the extraordinary circumstances of the election - the closeness of the race; the contested, combative outcome; Bush's defeat in the national popular vote; and the nearly dead-even split in Congress - stand to affect all aspects of Bush's governing, coloring everything from Cabinet appointments to the policy agenda he sets at the start of his administration.
"The questions of policy, legislative agenda and relationships with the Congress, all of those are likely to be influenced by the fact that it's been a very close election, that the nation is, if anything, evenly divided," Bush's running mate, Dick Cheney, said this week.
Bush's main sales pitch during the campaign - and even now as he tries to convince the public he has rightfully and officially won the presidency - has been that he is a "uniter, not a divider," an affable, pragmatic politician who can reach across the aisle to work with Democrats and forge consensus.
He has often pointed to the fact that, as Texas governor, he worked hand-in-hand with the state's most powerful Democrat, the late Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, who came to endorse Bush for the presidency.
But as president, Bush would be doing business with a body of legislators far more partisan and ideologically diverse than Texas' part-time legislature.
"Bush will find the Congress is not Texas," says Maryland Democrat Steny H. Hoyer.
In fact, Bush would confront not only a Congress almost evenly split between Democrats and Republicans - the Senate is 50-50, the House has only a slight Republican majority - but one still roiling from six years of bitter partisan battles including a government shutdown and presidential impeachment.
"It's naive to assume there aren't some deep wounds here that aren't going to be easy to heal," says former Clinton chief of staff Leon E. Panetta.
What's more, many Democrats, angry at the Republicans' charge that Gore is trying to steal the election by calling for recounts in Florida, would be hard-pressed to welcome the Texas governor with open arms, some lawmakers say.
The post-election warfare "has probably stiffened the resistance of Democrats to a Bush presidency," says Rep. Cal Dooley, a California Democrat.
"In order to achieve legitimacy, he can't presume it in taking office. He'll have to work to earn it," says Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, a moderate Democrat. "The most important thing he can do is reach out to Democrats right away. It absolutely has to happen right up front."
The most obvious way for a President Bush to extend a hand to Democrats would be to appoint moderates, or even Democrats, to his Cabinet, a move he might otherwise not have considered.
So far, two top appointments that have been strongly hinted at by the Texas governor - and are now assumed to be all but signed and sealed - are those of former Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin L. Powell as secretary of state and the Bush campaign's chief foreign policy aide, Condoleezza Rice, as national security adviser. Both served in the administration of Bush's father.
But Cheney, who heads Bush's transition process, said yesterday that there was a "good possibility" Bush would appoint Democrats to his Cabinet. "The governor has given the instructions to look in those areas, and we clearly will," he said on NBC's "Today" show.
Much speculation has centered on former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn, a Democrat and defense hawk who chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"I would suspect if they want this government of national unity they would make a run at someone like Nunn first," says Lawrence Korb, former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. "If we ever get through this election, I think there'll be a lot of healing to do. The country would know Nunn."
Nunn has been approached about being defense secretary by every president since Richard M. Nixon, said a close Nunn associate, noting that President Clinton asked the former senator several times to oversee the Pentagon.
But there are several heavy negatives attached to Nunn that could make him a nonstarter. He led opposition to U.S. military intervention in the Persian Gulf war and he also led the successful fight against President George Bush's nomination of Sen. John G. Tower to be defense secretary.
Some close to Governor Bush believe more likely candidates for defense secretary are such Republicans as former Indiana Sen. Daniel R. Coats, who served on the Armed Services Committee; Paul D. Wolfowitz, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a former deputy to Cheney in the Defense Department; and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, a Vietnam veteran.