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Unless Pete Rozelle can utilize his persuasive powers one more time to unify the warring factions in the NFL, his longed-for retirement will have to be put off. Again.

Those factions - Old Guard, New Guard, in-group, out-group, or whatever they're called - met for nearly nine hours Tuesday and ended farther away from electing Rozelle's successor than they were July 6. That's when Jim Finks, the president of the New Orleans Saints, came up with 16 votes, three short of the 19 necessary for election.Rozelle, the only one who spoke about what transpired Tuesday, would not say how the four ballots came out except to say "it was less close than July 6." Rozelle said there were slight differences on each of the four, but indications were that Finks never got more than 15 votes.

In any case, it appeared to be a two-man race between the 62-year-old Finks and 48-year-old Paul Tagliabue, the league's top antitrust lawyer and a partner in the Washington law firm of Covington & Burling.

The owners spent the first four hours interviewing four finalists - Finks, Tagliabue, former Green Bay Packers star Willie Davis and J. Patrick Barrett, the New York Republican chairman and former chairman of Avis.

After the interviews, the owners voted - twice before dinner and twice after - with no resolution.

Ever since the July 6 meeting, when Finks was expected to be annointed, the deadlock has continued.

Finks' election was blocked then via 11 voting abstentions by a group of owners led by Minnesota's Mike Lynn, Philadelphia's Norman Braman, San Francisco's Edward DeBartolo Jr., and Tampa's Hugh Culverhouse Jr.

They objected both to the makeup of the original selection committee - all of whose members had been in the league at least 20 years - and the fact that they recommended only Finks. So a new committee was formed, made up of two original members and two of the dissidents - Lynn and Seattle's Kenneth Behring. It reported back with four finalists, of whom only Barrett had not been in the final six during the first round.

But that didn't seem to work either, with indications that the longer the balloting continues, the more Finks' chances diminish.

Tagliabue seems to have the support of many of the dissidents, even though his work for the league and the league office stamp him as "establishment." That label could also help him get the votes of the Finks supporters and Rozelle is known to admire him - top league officials say that when a crisis emerges, the commissioner often asks, "What does Paul think?"

"I would be extremely supportive of Paul Tagliabue," DeBartolo said.

Rozelle said that most of the time the debate was amicable, but added, "Most of the time, not all of the time."

And he said if nothing is resolved this week, he might try again next week.