From Staff, Wire Reports
WASHINGTON - President Bush and challenger John Kerry sweated out a tension-packed conclusion to the race between an embattled incumbent and a Democrat who questioned the war he waged in Iraq. Ohio loomed as this year's Florida, the decisive state, with Kerry's options dwindling.
Bush won Florida, the state he nailed down four years ago only after a 36-day recount and Supreme Court decision. Kerry hung on to the Democratic prize of Pennsylvania, but had precious few places to pick up electoral votes that went Republican in 2000 - Ohio, Nevada and New Hampshire.
George W. Bush easily took the state with 58 percent of the vote and only 5 percent of the precincts still left to report.
John Kerry bucked the trend in Clayton County, rampaging through the traditionally Democratic County with 50,445 votes to Bush's 19,808.
Michael Badnarik dredged up 292 Libertarian votes in the county.
Local voters came out in huge numbers in places like Mt. Zion High School where they experienced waits as long as four hours.
Rebecca Madden sat in a more than two-hour line at Mt. Zion High School trying not to think about the wait because she said "the last election proves your vote does count."
First time voter, Holly Smith said, "I just care about the presidential election because the two candidates are so close. I really don't care about any of the other races."
To determine which presidential candidate she wanted in office, Belita Smith asked, "Are we better off now than we were four years ago?"
Smith answered her own question by voting for Kerry.
"I've given it my all," Bush said after voting in a firehouse at Crawford, Texas, hoping to avoid being the first wartime president bounced from office.
Kerry, a four-term Massachusetts senator, allowed himself to muse about the problems he might face in the White House, including a soaring deficit and a war that has claimed more than 1,100 lives.
"I'm not pretending to anybody that it's a bed of roses," the Democrat said.
The Electoral College count was excruciating: With 270 votes needed, Bush won 27 states for 249 votes. Kerry won 15 states plus the District of Columbia for 216 votes.
At midnight with several battleground states still unsettled, neither man had managed to turn around a state from 2000, a requirement for Kerry because states won by Democrat Al Gore four years ago are worth just 260 votes this year due to redistricting.
Kerry could pick that up plus
some in Ohio with 20 electoral votes. Without the Buckeye state, he could only turn to Nevada (5 votes), New Hampshire (4 votes),
A 269-269 tie would throw the presidential race to the House.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.: "Obviously the presidential race is going to keep us up most of the night."
Bush lost Pennsylvania, a major blow after courting voters with steel tariffs and 44 visits _ the most of any state _ in a bid to steal it from the Democrats. The loss raises the stakes in Florida and Ohio, both won by Bush in 2000.
Independent candidate Ralph Nader could play the spoiler in New Hampshire and Nevada.
Republicans moved toward increasing their majority in the Senate, winning Democratic seats in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Louisiana while Democrats took a GOP-held seat in Illinois as Barack Obama won easily. In January, Obama will be the third black U.S. senator since Reconstruction.
Republicans extended their decade-long hold on the House for another two years, knocking off four veteran Texas Democrats.
Alongside the White House and congressional races, a full roster of propositions and local offices kept voters busy. But all eyes were focused on Kerry's bid to make Bush the first president voted out of office in the midst of a war.
"I believe I will win, thank you very much," Bush said while awaiting results from the hard-fought Midwest and Florida with his family and dog Barney.
The race showed signs of being as close as 2000, when Bush lost the popular vote to Gore but won the Electoral College count and the presidency after a ruling by the Supreme Court gave him Florida. The incumbent hoped to avoid the fate of his father _ former President George H.W. Bush, who was bounced by voters in 1992 after waging war against Iraq and overseeing an ailing economy.
Braced for a replay of the 2000 recount, legions of lawyers and election-rights activists watched for signs of voter fraud or disenfranchisement. New lawsuits sought clearer standards to evaluate provisional ballots in Ohio and a longer deadline to count absentee ballots in Florida.
While complaints were widespread, they weren't significant. "So far, it's no big, but lots of littles," said elections expert Doug Chapin.
Voters were torn over the presidential race, in ways all too familiar.
Exit polls suggested that slightly more voters trusted Bush to handle terrorism than Kerry. A majority said the country was safer from terrorism than four years ago, and they overwhelmingly backed Bush.
However, among those who said they were very worried about a terrorist strike, Kerry held a slight lead. That was a troubling sign for the incumbent as was this: A majority of voters said things were going poorly in Iraq, and they heavily favored Kerry.
With nearly 1 million jobs lost in Bush's term, Kerry was favored by eight of 10 voters who listed the economy as a top issue.
The nation's mood? There was division on that, too. Half said the country was headed in the right direction, a good sign for the incumbent.
Voters welcomed an end to the longest, most expensive presidential election on record. "It's the only way to make the ads stop," Amanda Karel, 25, said as she waited to vote at a banquet hall in Columbus, Ohio.
Both sides spent a combined $600 million on TV and radio ads, more than twice the total from 2000.
Bush won among white men, voters with family incomes above $100,000 and weekly churchgoers. Three-fourths of white voters who described themselves as born-again Christians or evangelicals supported Bush.
The president had hoped to increase his support among the religious right since 2000, but exit polls suggest there was little change.
Kerry retained Gore's margins among blacks and union households, key parts of the Democratic base. His voters named the economy and Iraq as top issues.
One in 10 voters were casting ballots for the first time and fewer than 10 percent were young voters, hardly the groundswell that experts had predicted. Kerry was favored by both groups, according to the surveys conducted for The Associated Press by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International.
Officials predicted a turnout of 117.5 million to 121 million people, the most ever and rivaling the 1960 election in the percentage of eligible voters going to the polls.
Poring over exit polls and field reports, Bush's aides in Arlington, Va., identified low-turnout precincts and dispatched more walkers to them. In Boston, advisers gave Kerry a longer-than-expected list of TV interviews to conduct by satellite to Wisconsin, Minnesota, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Oregon.
That was an interesting list: Oregon was supposed to be safely Democratic and Colorado had seemed to be tilting toward Bush heading into Tuesday.
In the final hours of the campaign, Kerry's aides tried to boost turnout in Hispanic areas by having the candidate's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, do Spanish-language television interviews. Exit polls showed the Democrat winning the Hispanic vote, but not by as much as Gore in 2000.
Voters in Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio received a wave of last-minute telephone calls as Kerry's strategists sought to nail down victories in those key Midwest battlegrounds.
Bush won Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming.
Kerry won California, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and statewide in Maine. One Maine vote remained a tossup.
Only nine of 34 Senate races on the ballot appeared competitive. One of them was held by Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, who was in a pitched fight against Republican John Thune.
All 435 House seats were up for election, but Democrats had little hope of a takeover. Republicans hold 227 seats, Democrats 205, with one Democratic-leaning independent and two vacancies in Republican-held seats.
With strategies molded by polls throughout the campaign, Kerry promised voters a new direction while Bush played up the risks of change.
Eleven gubernatorial contests were being decided Tuesday, along with 5,800 legislative seats in 44 states. Former Bush administration budget director Mitch Daniels won the governorship in Indiana, taking the seat from the Democrats.
Among the notable ballot measures, voters in 10 states approved propositions that would ban gay marriage. In California, voters approved spending $3 billion on stem-cell research.