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What a mess term limits have created in New York City, a place that needs no more turmoil.

Mayor Rudy Giuliani has made it clear that he longs to remain in office so he can rebuild his city. A majority of New Yorkers would, by every indicator, be glad to keep Rudy right where he is.

But Giuliani finishes his eight years in office on Dec. 31. The law says: that's all, folks. Ironically, a mayor who proved there were few limits on his power to run New York City is the first in its history to be limited to two consecutive terms.

Giuliani, being Giuliani, figured there must be some way around the problem. This was his only misstep since the attack on the World Trade Center. He publicly flirted with climbing over the law or getting it changed. The man whose uplifting battle cry was that New Yorkers would get back to normal suddenly sought abnormal ways of keeping power.

The city's Rudy-less primaries were originally scheduled for Sept. 11. Voting was halted within hours. When the ballots were finally cast on Tuesday, an unenthusiastic electorate picked billionaire Michael Bloomberg as the Republican nominee and created a Democratic runoff between Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer and Public Advocate Mark Green. Both are liberals and both have been Giuliani critics -- though not in the days since Sept. 11.

This lineup did nothing to squelch Giuliani's desire to stay on. But he now appears to understand that overturning the law could divide a city he has done so much to unite. On Wednesday, he floated the idea of staying on two or three months beyond the end of his term by postponing the inauguration of a new mayor.

His idea isn't perfect. Long transitions during crises often make things worse. We used to inaugurate the president on March 4, four months after Election Day. The country felt a sense of relief when the 20th Amendment moved the date up to Jan. 20. Still, Giuliani's idea may be the necessary balm for a jittery city.

Giuliani faces two wrongs that can't make a right. Term limits are, at heart, undemocratic. If New York's voters want Giuliani again, they should be able to re-elect him. Now, they can't.

It's heartening that Giuliani's dilemma has created second thoughts among his fellow Republicans, so many of whom championed term limits in the past.

As conservative writers John Miller and Ramesh Ponnuru wrote earlier this month in National Review's Internet edition, "Every so often, a figure comes along who is a walking advertisement against term limits." Giuliani is one of them.

Yet trying to get around the limits now would not only be a blow to normality; it would also be exceptionally divisive, especially in light of the results of the Democratic primary. Ferrer, the top vote-getter, ran as the tribune of the city's minority community. He won 70 percent of the Latino vote and 52 percent of the black vote, but only 6 percent of the white vote. Last-minute Giuliani maneuvers would inevitably be seen by Ferrer's constituency of have-nots as manipulations designed to block its shot at power.

But Fred Siegel, a historian who has written widely on New York politics and proudly describes himself as a "Giuliani Democrat," notes another unintended consequence of the mayor's flirtations. If the city's white ethnic voters, especially the Italians and the Irish, thought they might have a chance to vote for Giuliani in November, many would skip the Democratic runoff. This could allow Ferrer to beat Green on a low turnout. The white ethnics might then be left feeling disenfranchised if Giuliani's maneuvers failed.

It's unfortunate that an act of evil has conspired with what many saw as a good government reform to create the risk of such alienation across New York's ethnic and racial spectrum. Blocking the free expression of the will of the voters, which is what term limits do, can have that effect.

Since Sept. 11, Giuliani has achieved a goal that eluded him for most of his term: Responding to catastrophe, he helped to bring New Yorkers together across every barrier and divide. For his own sake and the city's, the mayor should preserve his achievement. He shouldn't run this time. If giving him a few extra months in office eases the way to that outcome, it's worth doing. He has certainly earned that much.

Washington Post Writers Group

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