Against an undercurrent of concern about the integrity of the election process but no indications of major problems, Americans waited in long lines at the polls today to deliver their verdict on the George Bush presidency and to elect a new House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate.
The apparently narrow margin separating the two candidates, with final polls indicating the race was a dead heat on the final day of the campaign, led the candidates and their running-mates to abandon common practice and spend part of election day campaigning.
As they did on an almost daily basis in the final weeks of the campaign, they touched down yet one more time in the few states still seen as holding the keys to success.
Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic challenger, greeted supporters who were about to canvass voters in La Crosse, Wis., and then headed back to Boston to vote. President Bush voted early in the morning at a fire station near his ranch in Crawford, Texas, and then flew to Columbus, Ohio, for a final campaign event — a visit to the phone bank at the campaign's state headquarters — before returning to the White House.
"It's such a wonderful feeling to vote," said Bush, who, with his wife, Laura, appeared tense and fatigued, his buoyant words notwithstanding. "This election is in the hands of the people, and I feel very comfortable about that."
Speaking with reporters under overcast skies after he voted with his wife and twin daughters, the president said, "I believe I'm going to win." He said he felt calm.
Laura Bush held his hand, rubbing it with a thumb.
Asked whether he thought the election would be decided by tonight — in contrast with the five weeks it took for the results to be determined four years ago — the president said:
"My hope, of course, is that this election ends tonight. I think it's very important for it to end tonight. The world watches our great democracy function. There would be nothing better for our system for the election to be conclusively over tonight."
In Columbus, after he said he had several cups of coffee aboard Air Force One, Bush appeared more energized, and declared: "I'm going to run this race out to its fullest."
On the flight back to Washington, he viewed a slide show of campaign photographs assembled by the chief White House photographer, Eric Draper.
Kerry arrived in Boston at midday.
He voted with his daughters at the Massachusetts Statehouse; his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, who accompanied them, had voted in Pennsylvania with her sons. He took his time with the ballot and borrowed his wife's glasses to read it.
Asked how it felt to cast his ballot, he said: "I don't think anyone can anticipate what it's like seeing your name on the ballot for president."
He kept to a personal election day tradition and ate lunch at the bar of the Union Oyster House near the historic Quincy Market.
Earlier, in La Crosse, in northwest Washington, he spoke hoarsely to about 250 supporters, and said, "It's such a magical kind of day."
"I'm counting on you. Today ... we're linking hearts and hands and we're going to take America back to a better place," he said.
A senior advisor, Mike McCurry, said that reports the campaign was getting from field workers squared with independent polling suggesting a record turnout which, he said, would bode well from Kerry.
"We think the level of turnout is one reason we have been very upbeat about our prospects. We know turnout of that size gives us an opportunity," he said.
On his flight to Boston, he presented staff members with silver picture frames, in a private meeting that participants portrayed as emotional.
Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, Kerry's vice presidential running mate, visited a polling place at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Tampa, Fla., where the line stretched out the door at 9:15 a.m. He shook hands with voters and hugged elderly ladies.
Sandra Busto, 58, tearfully hugged him and said, "You're going to be the next vice president. I know you are. God bless you. Yeah!"
Edwards conducted a series of television interviews by satellite hook-up — he had as many as 50 planned for a five-hour period in Orlando — and said in one: "I think Florida is enormously important and we just want to make sure that Florida voters know how important we're treating Florida.... We just want to be certain that people know we're paying a lot of attention here."
Asked how confident he was in the integrity of the vote in Florida, one of many states where questions have been raised even before voters showed up, about whether all registered voters would be allowed to vote and would have their votes counted, he said: "We actually feel very confident. Things seem to be going well so far. We've got people in place in case any hitches occur. But we expect any hitches to be relatively mild. We think this democracy is going to work."
And Vice President Dick Cheney, back in Wyoming after a two-day marathon that took him from the Midwest to Hawaii and then Colorado and Wyoming, stood in line behind 10 people and then cast his ballot in the town of Wilson, in the shadows of the Grand Teton Mountains.
"Beautiful morning," he said.
He stopped at a volunteers' phone bank in Waukesha, Wis., on his way back to Washington, tickled by assign that read "Cheeseheads choose Cheney."
"This election is more important than any in my lifetime," he said.
Amid indications across the country of a surge in voting compared with past years, officials in both Los Angeles and Orange County said that by noon, a greater percentage of voters had cast their ballots this year compared to 2000.
Even before it closed, the campaign appeared destined for a lasting place in political lore.
The race was the longest general election contest ever — eight months — and the costliest, with total spending expected to exceed $1.5 billion. It was also the toughest reelection fight any incumbent has faced since Democrat Harry Truman's famous upset in 1948 -with the possible exception of the 1992 race that Bush's father lost.
Time and again, the election confounded expectations, starting with Kerry's victory in the Iowa caucuses in January, when former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean had been drawing spillover crowds and shattering online fundraising records.
Faced with Dean's initial success, Kerry gambled by mortgaging his Boston mansion and wagering on the victory that even some of his aides thought would elude him.
But Kerry's big victory there catapulted him to the Democratic nomination, past Edwards, who finished a surprising second in the party's primary contests.
With little left in the bank after the primary season ended, many expected Kerry would be buried in a blizzard of negative advertising that Bush ran almost the instant his Democratic rival emerged. But Kerry stayed even with Bush in the polls, quickly replenishing his campaign coffers and getting a big lift from millions of dollars in advertisements placed by independent liberal groups.
It was an independent conservative group, formed by a group of angry Vietnam veterans, that proved the most nettlesome to Kerry's campaign. Even though many of their charges proved false, the group, calling itself Swift Boat Veterans For Truth, managed to badly tarnish Kerry's decorated Vietnam War service.
There were surprises on the Republican side as well. Bush once was seen as politically invincible. After the Sept. 11 attacks, his approval rating peaked at an unprecedented 90%.
But eventually the tepid economy and the worsening situation in Iraq began weighing on his presidency. His approval settled at the 45%-to-50% mark — a danger zone for incumbents — and has rarely budged.
Yet, in the eyes of voters, the president has maintained an advantage over Kerry on leadership issues and toughness fighting terrorism. Assailing Kerry as a candidate who shifted positions to gain political benefit — "a flip-flopper" in campaign rhetoric that took hold quickly at Republican rallies and warning of the continued threat of terrorism, Bush appeared in a position to close out the race as the campaign debates began at the end of September.
But Kerry's strong performance helped him pull even with Bush, and the contest has been stalemated ever since.
Times staff writers Maura Reynolds, Matea Gold, Maria L. La Ganga and Richard Simon contributed to this story.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times