Gore says it: Bush fixed the election

Boy George got his first CIA briefing - routinely given to incoming presidents - last Tuesday. "Do I have to start doing homework already?" he wailed to his mum. (Sorry, that was a joke stolen from one of the late-night comedians, the only worthwhile source of news on the election these days.) But, simultaneously, the 54-year-old and increasingly terrified-looking Dubbya was receiving an unequivocal warning from Al Gore, standing self-confidently in front of the White House Christmas tree: it ain't over yet, mate. Not only did Gore insist his chances of entering the White House in his own right next month were still 50:50, but he actually said he was "optimistic" - on the very day the media was writing off his chances.

What the pundits missed was that Gore had moved to Phase Two of his struggle with Boy George: laying the groundwork for the future, whatever the outcome of the various legal struggles for the White House. First, he subtly gave notice that his last hope would not necessarily lie with the Florida Supreme Court after all, that he was now putting more weight on the outcome of two privately brought court cases concerning electoral shenanigans in Seminole and Martin counties (in Florida).

Then came the most revealing words, showing that, whatever the outcome of the legal wrangles, the ruthless political endgame has now commenced: "I am very troubled by a lot of the stories that have been reported." This was shorthand for: crooked Republicans in Florida, led by Kid Brother Governor Jeb, conspired to steal this election from me by fiddling numbers, denying votes to blacks (figures at the weekend showed that one in five votes in black areas were thrown out, compared with one in 14 in white districts), and allowing pilfering of ballots so that they could then be used as votes for Boy George.

Having taken the high road so far - even to the extent of temporarily silencing his spokesman Chris Lehane, who makes Alastair Campbell look pathetically tongue-tied and amateurish - Gore himself was at least beginning to say what so many Democrats whisper in private. True, he did not mention Kid Brother's name, but he had said enough to plant the seeds of doubt from on high. There's a lot of funny business going on down there in Florida. Dishonesty. Racism. Theft. Fraud. All by Republicans and all because Kid Brother was determined to land Florida for Dubbya, as he had promised him he had done on election night.

Gore's strategy is thus now twofold. The legal possibilities of overturning the electoral results in Florida, certified by the secretary of state there, Katherine Harris (a former "close friend" of Jeb according to gossip and now aka Cruella de Vil), have steadily diminished. But, certainly as I write, they are by no means exhausted. If the unlikely-but- still-possible scenario unfolds - that Gore rather than Dubbya is pronounced winner in Florida, courtesy of one of the 46 (at the latest count) lawsuits that have been flying around - Smug Al will have already started to rebuff the inevitable sympathy stories about how the heartbroken Boy George was thrown out of his rightful throne in the White House.

The most likely course, however, is that, with legal wrangles still unresolved, Republican majorities in Florida's legislature will meet arbitrarily to send their own 25 electoral college delegates to vote for Dubbya, a legal but politically highly questionable move, particularly if and when the measure to land Boy George in the White House has to be signed by Kid Jeb (an altogether brighter man, incidentally, than Boy George).

If the nation's media is going on about electoral fiddles and stolen votes in Florida, all this could turn out to be a disastrous PR move by the Republicans. Across the US, 337,576 more voted for Gore than Bush and many Republicans (including Kid Brother himself) have to face re-election in 2002.

So if Gore can spin out the legal uncertainties until 12 December and avoid having to concede before then - and the private court cases could well drag on even if the main appeal to the Florida Supreme Court doesn't - he will force the Republicans to take the low road. And if his hints of electoral dirty work by Jeb's team stick, he will have accumulated much political sympathy and capital for the future. The hapless Boy George would take office on 20 January without a popular mandate and dogged forever by stories that he robbed the presidency from Gore with the help of Kid Brother, 47.

I sometimes allow myself a smidgen of gratification when the rest of the media follow what they read here first, and now "commentators" are saying what I wrote last week: that Gore looks increasingly presidential, while Bush seems less suited to office than ever. Assuming that Gore does not enter the White House next month (which we ought not to do, yet), he already has his eyes on 2004 and the primaries that will be under way in little more than three years. I had thought the Democrats would dump him next time, but he's playing the post-electoral game so well, so far, that he is now looking a much brighter prospect.

Thus the new role of noble victim of skulduggery, the man who won the majority of votes for the presidency yet was denied office in favour of a numskull, is suddenly suiting Gore. Should he be denied the White House in favour of Boy George, history may well show that the losing of this election was the making of Al Gore. And, given that he is only 52, it's not too late for a victorious comeback, either.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.