AUSTIN, Texas -- Here's the challenge: Let's everybody with a dog in this fight -- meaning either pro-Gore or pro-Bush -- be obliged to make the case for the other side for at least 15 minutes.

Because I think we're watching something important, quite aside from the fate of the nation and the future of The World's Greatest Democracy (except for Florida).

In a mild and in some ways not terribly important case (I may have to eat those words), we're watching why wars start. What we see is the constant presentation -- because the media love to polarize -- of people who are apparently incapable of imagining what the situation looks like from somebody else's point of view.

Is it a lack of empathy, sympathy, imagination? A few years ago, James Carville, the Democratic consultant, wrote a book called We're Right, They're Wrong, which is a great title. Since I don't believe in objectivity -- I think that poor Al Gore won this election fair and square and that the Bushies are trying to spin their way into the White House -- I'm not trying to split the difference here, as in, "You know, they could both be right." Possible, but highly unlikely.

What I do think we have here is not an attempt to steal an election by one side or the other but an amazingly tight race that's late in being called precisely because it's so close. All I'm trying to do is budge people off their poisonous certitude.

How would you feel if Gore's younger brother were the governor of Iowa and the top election official there was Gore's state campaign manager?

How would you feel if the Republicans were notorious for stealing close elections and you thought they had done so in the past?

Now here's an interesting example of what's going on: Bill Daley, Gore's top guy, is the son of Da Late Mare of Chicago, Richard J. Daley, a noted practitioner of electoral chicanery.

With contemptuous anger, many Republicans have bluntly said, as though it were quite as obvious as the nose on your face: Well, all you need to know is that he's Daley's son! Would that argument, or non-argument, pass muster if people weren't so exercised? One might just as logically argue that George W. Bush will raise taxes because his daddy did after saying, "Read my lips, no new taxes."

Another interesting facet of this nuttiness is the avidity of the sense of grievance from which many of us suffer. I notice every cheap shot, every mean, petty comment, every anti-Semitic allusion, every nasty, illogical argument made by the Bush people -- and then I'm quite astonished when I hear Republicans talk about how nasty and ugly the Democrats are being!

How we seize on cases like Katherine Harris, the Florida secretary of state and Bush partisan; John Ellis, the Bush cousin who helped Fox News first call Florida for Bush, leading to a stampede by other networks.

The counterspin is that the Gore camp is attacking the helpless Harris, smearing her, destroying her reputation -- a tactic learned, according to The Wall Street Journal's perpetually apoplectic editorial writers, from the dread Bill Clinton himself; the same tactic, said the Journal, "used against FTC investigator Jean Lewis, Kathleen Willey, Linda Tripp and Billy Dale, to name only a few."

Oh, I don't know -- couldn't we get a bye on Linda Tripp?

The perfect point at which to contemplate what prejudice does to judgment is the matter of hand count vs. machine count.

Have you persuaded yourself that one or the other is the perfect, impeccable way to decide this election? Even better, are you for the hand count in one place and against it in another? To point out the perfectly obvious, machine counts err, consistently, and hand counts are subjective. Duh.

Notice also the tendency that we all have to see our favored side as slightly blundering and clueless, overmatched by a ruthless, desperate, unscrupulous camp on the other side.

Have you considered the possibility that both the Gore and the Bush camps are just muddling through this as best they can?

The good news is coming from the campuses and even high schools. The kids are into it! All the poly-sci teachers are ecstatic. And we may actually get something besides the low-bid voting machines for the next election. Besides, we all know what the Electoral College is now.

Al has stopped wearing earth tones. George W. is doing himself a great deal of good by not talking. We will make it through this without riot, bloodshed or civil war.

So just for the intellectual interest of it, try advocating for the other side for 15 minutes.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.