These are the questions that will keep Al Gore up at night - tonight and maybe for the rest of his life. What if he had fought his campaign just a tad differently, sending Bill Clinton to fight for his home state of Arkansas, whose 11 electoral college votes alone would have been enough to make Gore president?
What if he had sunk just a little more energy into his own home turf of Tennessee, whose 11 electoral votes he also lost to George W Bush?
What if he had found a way to reach the supporters of the Green candidate, Ralph Nader, just 1,000 of whom switching sides in Florida would have made all the difference?
Or what of all those events beyond his control? What if Theresa LePore, the well-intentioned election official in Florida's Palm Beach County, had not tried to help the elderly in her region with a large-print voting form that metamorphosed into the now notoriously confusing "butterfly" ballot paper? What if she had left well alone; wouldn't that have bagged more than 20,000 votes for Al Gore?
Even with all that damage done before election day, what else might have been done differently afterwards? What if the good people of Palm Beach had not taken a day off for Thanksgiving, thereby making their recount come in too late to be included in the final, certified figure? What if officials in Miami-Dade county had not been so rattled by a Republican near-riot, protesters pounding on the doors of the counting room, that they suspended their effort when only a fifth of the votes had been recounted?
And, in the last days, what if Gore's lawyer, David Boies, had done more to convince the supreme court's waverers that December 12 was not an iron deadline - that there was plenty of time to conclude a recount by the real deadline of December 18?
What if, what if, what if? These questions may well plague Al Gore, forcing him to sweat through the nights of the next four years, weighing on his heart as he sees Bush - a man he regards as his political and intellectual inferior - swearing the oath of office next month, delivering the state of the union address or generally enjoying a job Gore be lieves rightfully belongs to him. Perhaps these nagging questions will act as a spur, forcing an astonishingly determined man to fight on to the next round: a grudge match against President Bush in 2004. But maybe they will drag him down, torturing him still when the rest of America has moved on.
Unless the rest of America does not move on so easily. For these 36 long days have taken their toll on the United States, exposing to the light failings and divisions within the country which the prosperity of the past eight years had done much to conceal. The presidential contest of 2000 became the election that wouldn't die - and the pain it has caused may not fade quickly.
First, there will be the bitterness, felt keenest among Democratic partisans but shared, too, by many of the 50m-plus Americans who cast their ballots for Al Gore. A clean knock-out blow on November 7 would have been hard, but they would have lived with it. But what happened in the early hours of yesterday morning does not feel like a fair defeat. "It was a raw seizure of power," said one Clinton administration official, insisting that five Republican-appointed judges had in effect anointed George W Bush to the presidency - by refusing a count of legal votes "because they feared the result".
Now Republicans will control all three branches of government - White House and both chambers of Congress - for the first time in nearly 50 years. And yet the arguments of the court majority were so weak, so full of holes, that nothing in the final ruling can reassure Democrats that in the end fairness, however harsh, prevailed. They will for ever doubt the legitimacy of the government that rules them.
For Gore and his supporters will look back on these five long weeks as a series of Republican attempts - in one court or other - to stop citizens' votes being counted for fear of what they might reveal. Whether it was the constant delays that kept volunteers stewing in the heat of Palm Beach county, stopping them counting when time was already precious, or the endless procedures in assorted courts - county, circuit or supreme, state and federal - it all boiled down to one theme. The Republicans did not want all Florida's votes to be counted, and that has offended American democrats - with both a large and a small D. The talk of a virtual coup d'état will grow.
Others less committed will also hold long memories of these 36 days of postelection madness. It was in these weeks, for example, that they got their first glimpse of how their new president reacts in a crisis. It was not a pretty sight.
For Bush seemed to crack under pressure. The symbolic image was - and will remain - the boil that bubbled up on his cheek a day or two after polling. The image stuck because it seemed to fit a man barely able to handle stress.
Instead he headed almost instantly for his Texas ranch. Even his friends admit that Bush did not follow the postelection campaign: while Gore watched the supreme court on CNN, Bush was in the gym. Indeed, the clearest impression to have emerged of Bush these past weeks is of an exercise fanatic - a man who has replaced his much-documented earlier addiction to alcohol with a fitness compulsion.
There was more revealing imagery. The lead was taken throughout by James Baker, the veteran hardman and loyal retainer of the Bush dynasty, and Dick Cheney, the vice president-to-be and former defence secretary to Bush's father. Baker did the groundwork in Florida, while Cheney sorted out the transition. The impression formed of a Bush administration run by Daddy's friends, with George W as the callow youth allowed to serve as frontman - a dauphin in a restoration monarchy. As one acerbic New York columnist put it, Baker, Cheney, and the former Gulf war general Colin Powell are the "grown-ups who keep sending poor George W off to play".
That's how it was during this strange period of election extra-time - and that's how it may well be for four more years. Bush will get to play with the toys - Air Force One, the White House situation room - while Daddy's country club friends do what the hell they like.
Gore, by contrast, appeared like a new man in the post-election twilight. Americans had known that he was stubborn - that "he would do anything to get elected". But they also saw an Al Gore who remained apparently calm and smiling, even under the most intense pressure.
Among Democrats who had previously had their doubts about the vice president, his stock began to rise. His doggedness was an asset: if that's how hard he would fight for his job, they wondered, imagine how he would battle for America.
That perception, coupled with the belief that he was robbed, might act as the rocket fuel for a second Gore attempt on the White House in 2004. It is rare in the television era for a failed nominee to get a second chance, but everything about this contest was rare, if not unprecedented. Besides, Americans love a good story, and the sheer narrative appeal of a Bush-Gore rematch may prove irresistible.
But the real legacy of the surreal days of autumn 2000 may well outlive both of these flawed men. Americans may finally look back on this episode as the moment when they realised they had to start taking their own medicine.
For some Americans are already arguing that the US can no longer travel the world, telling smaller, weaker nations to embrace democracy, when their own leader has been installed in a courtroom fix. Instead, they might have to make some changes.
There could be a flood of claims from voters saying that the systems of their particular state were also patchy and therefore unconstitutional, under the new standard set by the supreme court. The result may well be a drumbeat for a modern, standardised voting system - using new technology - across the country.
More fundamentally, Americans are coming to see their own constitution more clearly. For the second time in two years, that 224-year-old document has been strained to breaking point as it was forced to apply to the 21st century. As with the impeachment affair, a text written for an age of horse carriages and quill pens had to cope with the demands of satellite TV and 24-hour news cycles.
It was revealed to be creaking at the edges. Now, at last, Americans may see that a system which can allow the loser to win and the winner to lose cannot remain unchanged. Perhaps they will realise at last that the beauty of their constitution is that it contains within it the possibility of its own reform. Americans have that power.
After the long, Alice-in-Wonderland autumn of 2000, they may finally decide to use it.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000