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Final Sprint in a Marathon Campaign

Times Staff Writer

Summoning a final burst of energy, President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry battled Monday from the chilly Midwest to sweltering Florida, mixing pleas and promises as the marathon White House race wound to an uncertain finish.

Nursing their voices after days of nonstop campaigning, the two men boiled their messages to the essence: Bush vowing to keep America secure, Kerry pledging a fresh start at home and in Iraq.

“In a new term I will keep pro-growth, pro-small business, pro-farmer policies in place,” Bush told supporters at a morning stop in Wilmington, Ohio. “I will defend your deepest values, and I will work every day to make sure your families are safe.”

Kerry called the election “the choice of a lifetime.”

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“Here we are, 24 hours from the great moment that the world and America is waiting for,” the Massachusetts senator said in a downpour in Milwaukee. “I need you in these hours to go out and do the hard work. Knock on those doors. Make those phone calls. Talk to friends. Take people to the polls.”

Forecasters predicted as many as 121 million people, or 60% of those eligible, would cast ballots, driven by one of the most polarizing and intense presidential campaigns in decades. Such a turnout would be up substantially from four years ago.

With a final round of opinion surveys showing the race a dead heat -- closer than the polls on election day 2000 -- Republicans and Democrats mobilized hundreds of thousands of volunteers and professional organizers to coax their supporters to get out and vote.

Thanks to early balloting, millions of Americans had already made their choices by the time the first polling places opened this morning, including nearly 2 million in Florida alone.

Independent Ralph Nader, on the ballot in 34 states and the District of Columbia, was not expected to be a major factor in the outcome, although some analysts said even the slightest support for him could tip the balance in a few states.

Adding tension to the tightness, each side accused the other of mischief.

In Lansing, Mich., some voters received calls falsely claiming that Kerry would legalize gay marriage. In New Jersey, Republicans complained that households were getting phone calls claiming an endorsement of Kerry by retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf. Schwarzkopf supports Bush.

An army of Democratic and Republican lawyers was standing by across the country, poised to litigate at the first sign of irregularities.

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In Ohio, one of the biggest tossups, Republicans won a potentially significant victory when the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this morning cleared the way for the party to challenge thousands of newly registered votes.

Memories of the chaos four years ago, which pushed the 2000 campaign well into December, shadowed today’s election.

An election-eve poll by the National Annenberg Election Survey found 62% of registered voters were “very confident” their votes would be accurately counted. An additional 22% said they were “somewhat confident.”

In addition to the presidential contest, control of the U.S. Senate was at stake, with analysts favoring Republicans to maintain their slim majority in the chamber. But that outcome was open to doubt.

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Also on the ballot nationwide were all 435 seats in the House of Representatives. Handicappers said fewer than 40 of those races were competitive, making it difficult for Democrats to capture the 12 seats they needed to take control.

In addition, voters in 34 states were facing 163 ballot measures on issues such as expanding stem cell research in California, immigration reform in Arizona and liberalized use of marijuana for medical purposes in Oregon and Montana. Eleven states will vote on measures that would ban same-sex marriages.

“I expect this election is going to be decided” tonight, Kerry told Associated Press in an interview Sunday. But hinting at legal action, he added, “given experience, I would be irresponsible if I wasn’t prepared to be able to protect every person’s right to vote.”

After more than two years of campaigning, hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising, three debates and too many speeches and rallies to count, the fight for the White House came down Monday to a few well-traveled states.

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The candidates’ final itineraries highlighted the battlegrounds. Bush stopped in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Wisconsin and New Mexico before ending the day in Texas. Kerry covered Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio before returning to Wisconsin for an election day rally.

In a sign of how the competition had narrowed, at one point Kerry’s motorcade -- lights flashing -- cut through Bush’s travel entourage as the White House press buses pulled into the Milwaukee airport.

The two presidential running mates traced their own furious paths across the country, from Hawaii to Florida and back to the Midwest.

Vice President Dick Cheney took a 2,800-mile detour for an eleventh-hour visit to Honolulu. He attended a rally shortly before midnight Sunday, and then returned to the mainland to attend rallies in Nevada and snowy Colorado.

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“If you want my opinion, John Kerry’s goose is cooked,” Cheney told hundreds of cheering supporters in Colorado Springs.

In Iowa, Edwards wedged into a cramped boiler room at Democratic headquarters in downtown Des Moines, made his way through volunteers and reporters, and jumped on a folding chair to deliver a two-minute speech.

Slightly editing his trademark slogan (“Hope is on the way”) to reflect the final chapter of the acrimonious election, the North Carolina senator declared, “Tomorrow, hope will arrive.”

For the drooping candidates, Monday’s fuel was a mix of faith and adrenaline.

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Bush started his day in Wilmington, Ohio, with a display of presidential might at an airport rally. Framed by the open hangar door, Bush’s white-topped Maine One helicopter touched down in view of the roaring crowd as the theme song from the movie “Top Gun” blared from loudspeakers.

“There is nothing like an early morning rally in the great state of Ohio,” Bush said, mindful that no Republican had won the White House without carrying the state.

The president was introduced in Wilmington, and later in Burgettstown, Pa., by a surprise guest: Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, who led his team to a historic World Series victory.

Last week, Schilling abruptly backed out of a scheduled appearance with the president in New Hampshire. But on Monday, Schilling told the Ohio crowd, “I’m even more proud to be on a team with an even more important mission. That team is going to reelect President George W. Bush.”

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Later, at his fifth stop of the day in Sioux City, Iowa, Bush said consistency was his main appeal for reelection.

“If you are a voter who believes that the president of the United States should say what he means and do what he says and keep his word, I ask you to come stand with me,” Bush said. “The role of the president should be based on courage and conviction and conscience.”

Throughout the day, he sucked on throat lozenges and shunned caffeine to protect his vocal chords. His 19-hour campaign marathon was a contrast to the light schedule he kept four years ago on the eve of the 2000 election.

Between stops, Bush played gin rummy aboard Air Force One with Karl Rove, his chief political advisor, and other aides. Mark McKinnon, the president’s ad man, described Bush as “very nostalgic” at the final gathering of his campaign team.

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Capping his day, an emotional Bush on Monday night addressed what was almost assuredly the final campaign rally of his political career. He chose Dallas for the occasion at least in part out of superstition: 10 years ago, when he ran successfully for Texas governor, Bush also had ended his campaign in Dallas.

“There’s no better place to end it than in the Big D -- Dallas, Texas,” the president told some 8,000 cheering supporters who packed the Moody Coliseum at Southern Methodist University.

After the rally, the president and First Lady Laura Bush flew by helicopter to their ranch near Crawford, Texas, for the night. Today, they will vote in the morning and stop briefly in Columbus, Ohio, to thank Bush-Cheney volunteers before returning to the White House.

Kerry began All Saints’ Day attending Mass in Orlando, Fla., before an airport rally. He joked that he had visited Florida so often, “my brother Cam is thinking of running for governor.” (Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is the president’s younger brother.)

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In Milwaukee, Kerry played up local appeals, mentioning the Green Bay Packers’ victory Sunday against the Washington Redskins.

He noted that in every presidential election since 1936, a Redskins’ loss in their final home game before the vote had been followed by the loss of the White House by the incumbent party.

“So I want to thank the Packers and Wisconsin for helping me out,” Kerry told a cheering crowd.

“And in 1960 it was Wisconsin that lifted John Kennedy over the top into the presidency, and I’m counting on you in 2004.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Poll closing times

Election returns from states will be staggered as polls shut down throughout the night. All times Pacific.

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4 p.m.

Georgia

Indiana

Kentucky

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Michigan

South Carolina

Vermont

Virginia

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4:30 p.m.

North Carolina

Ohio

West Virginia

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5 p.m.

Alabama

Connecticut

Delaware

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District of Columbia

Florida

Illinois

Kansas

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Maine

Maryland

Massachusetts

Mississippi

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Missouri

New Hampshire

New Jersey

Oklahoma

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Pennsylvania

Tennessee

5:30 p.m.

Arkansas

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6 p.m.

Arizona

Colorado

Louisiana

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Minnesota

Nebraska

New Mexico

New York

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Rhode Island

South Dakota

Texas

Wisconsin

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Wyoming

7 p.m.

Iowa

Montana

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Nevada

Utah

8 p.m.

California

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Idaho

North Dakota

Oregon

Washington

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9 p.m.

Alaska

Hawaii

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Source: Reuters

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Times staff writers Edwin Chen, Michael Finnegan, James Gerstenzang, Matea Gold, Maria L. La Ganga, James Rainey, Maura Reynolds and Richard Simon contributed to this report. Chen and Reynolds traveled with the Bush campaign, Finnegan and Gold with the Kerry campaign.


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