WASHINGTON (AP) _ Long after the election, George W. Bush and Al Gore are still running hard against each other. With photo ops and flags, news conferences and transition planning, they are competing to outdo each other in acting presidential and projecting confidence.

``What we're looking at is a struggle for legitimacy here,'' political psychologist Aubrey Immelman said. ``The candidates are trying to appeal to our patriotic sensibilities and so they're using whatever symbols of patriotism they can find.''

Bush, officially certified the winner in make-or-break Florida, has a clear advantage in the public relations battle and has been maneuvering to keep it that way. The Texas governor has been bolder than Gore in surrounding himself with the appearances of victory, trying to project an image of inevitability about a Bush presidency.

Bush got an early boost from celebration scenes that were seared in Americans' minds when television networks prematurely declared him the winner. That impression was reinforced by Bush's 537-vote margin over Gore officially announced Sunday by Florida's secretary of state, Katherine Harris, a Republican support of the governor.

Bush invited reporters, photographers and cameramen to his Texas ranch Thursday to show that he is going about the business of building his administration regardless of the election uncertainty. With running mate Dick Cheney at his side, Bush presented retired Gen. Colin Powell, his choice for secretary of state.

``When the counting finally stops we want to be prepared to lead this nation,'' Bush said. He complained it was time to ``get some finality'' in the 23-day-old election.

Gore hasn't had anything to match Bush's images of triumph. The vice president's challenge is to persuade Americans that the election is not over and he has solid grounds to fight.

``It's in the court of public opinion now and Bush definitely has the advantage there,'' said Immelman, a professor at St. John's University.

Gore, after initially concentrating on the legal battle, belatedly turned his attention to the PR war. He raced around Washington for television interviews Wednesday and sent running mate Joseph Lieberman out to the cameras Thursday.

Gore's campaign leaders had been furious in the first days after the election when Bush publicly set a White House transition team in motion. In particular, the Gore team was upset when Bush staged a meeting with advisers and potential administration members in a setting that invited comparisons with the Oval Office. Gore campaign chief William Daley fumed that Bush's people were trying to ``presumptively crown themselves the victors.''

The vice president shifted gears to the court of public opinion when Florida certified Bush the winner and polls showed that Americans' patience was wearing thin.

Some surveys have found an overwhelming majority of people think Bush won the presidency, but up to half also say it's not time for Gore to concede.

So Gore has changed his strategy, saying that he, too, was choosing who would serve in a Gore administration. He followed that up with assertions that he _ not Bush _ won the race in Florida and thus the presidency.

``He's really got solid footing on legal grounds under Florida law,'' said Rep. Allen Boyd, a Democrat from conservative north Florida. ``I've told his team he ought to be doing a better job on the PR side, let the press know what his options are legally and ask the country to be patient.''

Not to be outdone by Bush in stage arrangements, Gore was flanked by 12 American flags, six on each side, in a televised address Monday night. The Bush-Gore flag battle has been so striking that late-night television host David Letterman poked fun by planting flags on his set, saying he wanted to calm the nation.

The value of strong public support was proven important when it helped President Clinton defeat a Republican-led impeachment effort in Congress to drive him from office.

``There's an awful lot about this that reminds me about the impeachment process,'' former Clinton White House chief of staff Leon Panetta said. ``It's become a war of words and the more Republicans try to force this issue and force Gore out of the game before he's had a chance to go to the courts, the more supportive the Democrats will be of Gore fighting on.''

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Terence Hunt has covered the Reagan, Bush and Clinton presidencies for The Associated Press