WASHINGTON - President Bush and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts were locked in a nail-biting race early this morning as Ohio emerged as the key battleground in the election.
After winning the hotly contested state of Florida, Bush was inching toward a victory in newly pivotal Ohio, where he had a roughly 125,000-vote lead with 4 percent of the vote uncounted.
In a sign that he had no plans to concede, Kerry dispatched running mate John Edwards early this morning to address a dwindling crowd of supporters gathered at Copley Square in Boston.
"It's been a long night, but we've waited four years for this victory - we can wait one more night," Edwards told the crowd in an uncharacteristically terse statement.
"John Kerry and I made a promise to the American people that in this election, every vote would count and every vote would be counted," he said. "Tonight we are keeping our word, and we will fight for every vote. You deserve no less."
Four years ago, many Democrats were angered when the party nominee, Al Gore, conceded prematurely and then had to withdraw his statement.
In one scenario, this year's race could deadlock at 269 electoral votes, throwing the election's fate into the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. The president had racked up victories throughout the South and Midwest, and Kerry won in the Northeast, West Coast and Illinois.
It was still possible for Kerry to turn the race around if he took a late lead in Ohio, with its 20 electoral votes, or posted wins in enough remaining states to earn him the 270 electoral votes he would need to prevail.
The Kerry campaign was holding out hope that the senator could claim Ohio, arguing that uncounted provisional ballots could give him the edge.
"The vote count in Ohio has not been completed," Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill said in a statement issued early this morning. "There are more than 250,000 remaining votes to be counted. We believe when they are, John Kerry will win Ohio."
Other estimates ranged as low as 100,000 provisional ballots. Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, a Republican, refused to say how many such ballots existed.
Legions of attorneys and poll-watchers were standing by in case of voting problems as both political parties searched for signs of a 2000 Florida-esque outcome. No major irregularities were reported, but legal disputes that could affect the outcome cropped up in Ohio, where a judge ruled over Republican objections that voters who were stuck in long lines after the polls closed could cast provisional ballots. A separate Ohio ruling allowed voters who did not receive their absentee ballots in the mail to cast provisional ballots.
In Florida, election workers overwhelmed by the number of absentee ballots cast in heavily Democratic Miami-Dade County said as many as 50,000 would not be counted until tomorrow.
In Iowa, the state secretary of state said early this morning that officials would not report results until later today because of broken ballot-counting machines and fatigue among poll workers.
Throughout the night and into this morning, Kerry huddled with his family awaiting the returns as Bush watched from the White House.
Both spent yesterday morning campaigning, then cast their votes and betrayed notes of nostalgia as their marathon bids drew to a close.
"I've given it my all," the president said after voting at a firehouse in Crawford, Texas.
Last night at the White House, Bush said, "I believe I will win, thank you very much," adding that "it's going to be an exciting evening."
A defeat for Bush would make him the first wartime president to be cast out by voters.
"We made the case for change," Kerry said after he and his daughters voted at the Massachusetts State House.
Bush's supporters waited for him at the Ronald Reagan Building in downtown Washington, as thousands of Kerry's supporters huddled on a chilly night in Copley Square - all awaiting word of who would be the next president.
Except for New Hampshire, which went to Bush in 2000 but to Kerry last night, no other state had changed party hands from the last election. That contest between Bush and Gore remained in doubt on election night and came down to a Florida recount that ultimately was resolved by the Supreme Court after a bitter 36-day fight.
"It's time to acknowledge that the president has a superior hand in the election right now," Democratic strategist James Carville said on CNN shortly before midnight, when Florida appeared to go to Bush. Kerry "needs to draw an inside straight if he's going to win," he added, saying that "the key is Ohio."
Senior Kerry campaign adviser Mike McCurry said, "We're monitoring very closely what we see as the result that will be critical in determining the outcome - that's Ohio."
"We remain very confident," he added.
In other races, Republicans kept control of both Houses of Congress and were looking to expand their razor-thin majority in the Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota was in the fight of his political career, trying to hold off a challenge from former Republican Rep. John Thune, who made an issue of Daschle's high profile in Washington and painted him as out of touch with his home state.
In Florida, former Bush administration Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez was locked in a close race with Democrat Betty Castor, a former state education official.
Republicans held retiring Sen. Don Nickles' seat in Oklahoma, where former Rep. Tom Coburn, a physician, defeated Democratic Rep. Brad Carson. The GOP also picked up the South Carolina seat being vacated by Democratic Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, with conservative Rep. Jim DeMint beating state Education Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum. And Republicans seized the North Carolina seat left by John Edwards, Kerry's vice presidential running mate. Rep. Richard M. Burr defeated Democrat Erskine Bowles, a businessman who served as Bill Clinton's chief of staff.
Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama, who wowed Democrats with his keynote speech at their national convention this summer, won an easy victory over conservative former presidential candidate Alan Keyes for a seat in the U.S. Senate. Obama became the third African-American to win election to the Senate, solidifying his place as a rising star in the party. The contest was for the seat left by Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, who retired.
Republicans received help in their efforts to keep a tight hold on the House by Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a 10-term Texan known for his bare-knuckles style, who engineered a redistricting plan for his state that put Democrats at a disadvantage.
The Texas remapping cost four Democrats their House seats yesterday: Rep. Charles W. Stenholm, a prominent fiscal conservative; Rep. Martin Frost, a senior member of the powerful Rules Committee; and Reps. Nick Lampson and Max Sandlin.
In the presidential contest, adding to the uncertainty last night was heavy voter turnout, which sent lines snaking out the doors of polling places in battleground states. Some polls stayed open late, and many election officials were counting late into the evening. Experts estimated that as many as 121 million, or 60 percent of eligible voters, would cast ballots in the election, up from about 105 million in 2000.
In Ohio, Republicans in Columbus let out a roar as two television networks called the state for Bush about 1 a.m.
"Obviously, nothing is complete, but we feel great," said Aaron McLear, spokesman for the Bush-Cheney campaign in Ohio.
"We're proud to be able to push the president toward victory," he said.
A few blocks away, Democrats said they were not ready to give up.
"We're holding out hope," said Dan Trevas, spokesman for the Ohio Democratic Party. "But we've got ground to make up."
With both parties bracing for a repeat of the bitter and protracted struggle for the White House that scarred the nation in 2000, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who won easy re-election last night, said it was important for the country to come together around the winner.
"It's been a nasty year," McCain told ABC. "But I hope that tomorrow morning sometime, when we're clear who the winner is, that we start a process of reconciliation so that we'll all work together."
Sun staff writers Ellen Gamerman, with the Kerry campaign in Boston, and Childs Walker, in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this article.
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