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Decision day: Voters choose between Bush and Kerry
President Bush and challenger John Kerry traded early victories Tuesday in a tense and testy contest between an embattled wartime incumbent and a hard-charging Democrat who blamed the incumbent for chaos in Iraq and joblessness at home. The president claimed an early victory in West Virginia, but bigger battlegrounds loomed.
As the first polls closed, it was too close to predict in Ohio, perhaps the linchpin in the drive to 270 electoral votes. Bush easily won in the GOP bastions of Georgia, Indiana and Kentucky while staving off Kerry's attempts to take the swing state of West Virginia.
"I've given it my all," Bush said after voting at a Crawford, Texas, firehouse, hoping to avoid being the first president voted out of office at a time of war.
Kerry, a four-term Massachusetts senator, got teary-eyed as he thanked his staff for a campaign's worth of work. "We made the case for change," he said after voting at the Massachusetts Statehouse.
Alongside the first presidential election since the Sept. 11 attacks, control of Congress was at stake as Bush's fellow Republicans sought to extend their hold on the House and Senate. A full roster of propositions and local offices filled ballots nationwide.
They 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. They were evenly split on whether they approved of the war in Iraq, with those backing the conflict heavily supporting Bush and those opposed strongly behind Kerry.
Interviews with voters as they left the polls suggested that most believed the country was headed in the wrong direction. Those wrong-track voters overwhelmingly backed Kerry.
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.
Turnout could turn out to be the great decider. Spending more money than ever to target voters, Democrats enlisted an army of paid organizers while Republicans issued marching orders by e-mail to legions of volunteers in the small towns and the farthest suburbs of battleground states.
Pre-election polls indicated the presidential race could be as close as 2000, when Bush lost the popular vote to Democrat Al 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.
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. Voters welcomed an end to the longest, most expensive 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.
Legions of lawyers and election-rights activists watched for signs of voter fraud or disenfranchisement. Complaints cropped up across the country, but voting seemed to be going smoothly overall.
Poring over exit polls and field reports, campaign strategists barked out 11th-hour orders to wrestle every vote from key states. At Bush's headquarters in Arlington, Va., aides 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.
Interviews with voters as they left the polls showed that Kerry was doing better among women and independents than the incumbent.
Democrats nurtured faint hopes of winning back the Senate, where Republicans held a 51-48 advantage with one Democratic-leaning independent. Only nine of 34 Senate races on the ballot appeared competitive, seven in states where Kerry had not seriously contested Bush.
In South Dakota, one of the tightest races was between the Senate's top Democrat, Tom Daschle, and Republican rival John Thune.
Early winners elected to a six-year term were incumbent Sens. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, Evan Bayh, D-Ind., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. Republican Johnny Isakson took the seat held by retiring Democratic Sen. Zell Miller in Georgia.
Five hours before the polls opened in South Dakota, Daschle won a court order prohibiting Republican poll watchers in one county from following American Indians after they cast ballots, or from writing down their license plate numbers. Thune's campaign said it would appeal.
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.
Bush, 58, never more popular than the weeks after the terrorist strikes three years ago, constantly reminded voters of those days and cast himself as a strong, steady leader in an era of unease. He called Kerry indecisive and argued that Iraq was part of a global battle against terror.
"The people know where I stand," he said Tuesday. "The people know I know how to lead."
Kerry, 60, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, questioned Bush's Sept. 11 response and often accused him of rushing into the "wrong war at the wrong time" in Iraq. He said the president refused to recognize problems at home and abroad, much less fix them.
On Tuesday, he criticized Bush on a spate of domestic issues plus Iraq, and said whoever was elected would face a long list of problems.
"I'm not pretending to anybody that it's a bed of roses," Kerry said.
With nearly 1 million jobs lost in Bush's term, pre-election surveys showed voters favoring Kerry over Bush on the economy and a majority believing the country was on the wrong track. Barely half approved of the president's job performance.
But most Americans also expected another terrorist strike, and they trusted Bush over Kerry to protect the country. No wartime president has lost on Election Day, though Presidents Truman and Johnson, both Democrats, opted against seeking re-election while fighting unpopular wars.
Vying for 270 Electoral College votes, the candidates' playing field extended as far as two dozen states but focused on fewer than 10, primarily in the Midwest and Florida.
Despite spending caps, the candidates and their allies spent a combined $600 million on television ads, more than twice the total in 2000,
The legal fees piled up, too. Both sides braced for recounts and other court challenges.
Eleven gubernatorial contests were being decided Tuesday, along with 5,800 legislative seats in 44 states. Democratic Gov. Mike Easley of North Carolina won re-election and Democratic Secretary of State Joe Manchin won the governorship in West Virginia that had been held by a Democrat
Among the notable ballot measures was one in California to devote $3 billion for stem cell research. Several states had propositions that would ban gay marriage.