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Ohio Up for Grabs; Bush Has Slim Lead

Times Staff Writer

Ohio emerged early today as the likely key to the White House, as President Bush stood just shy of securing reelection.

Sen. John F. Kerry pressed on with his campaign even as he trailed in the popular vote, both nationally and in Ohio.

“It’s been a long night, but we’ve waited four years for this victory, and we can wait one more night,” Kerry’s running mate, Sen. John Edwards, told a crowd of supporters in Boston early this morning, in a repeat of a similar scene four years ago.

“John Kerry and I made a promise to the American people that with this election, every vote would count and every vote would be counted,” Edwards said. “Tonight, we are keeping our word, and we will fight for every vote.”

Ohio’s top election official said it could be more than a week before all the votes were counted, suggesting a reprise of the suspense -- and legal skirmishing -- that pushed the 2000 campaign deep into December.

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Twenty electoral votes were at stake in Ohio, the biggest chunk still on the map. Bush had 254 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win.

“Everyone should take a deep breath and relax,” Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, a Republican, said on CNN. He said at least 150,000 provisional ballots -- those set aside for review because of discrepancies -- would not be tallied for at least 10 days under Ohio law. There were also tens of thousands of absentee and military ballots to be totaled.

Wisconsin, Iowa and New Mexico were also too close too call as of early this morning.

Overall, it was a good day for Republicans. The party retained control of the House and Senate, picking up seats and knocking off the Democrats’ leader in the upper house, Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

With the economy, terrorism and the war in Iraq as driving issues, the election drew a huge turnout, forcing election officials to extend voting hours in several of the hardest-fought states.

Despite scattered problems, the balloting went smoothly for the most part. In Florida, the epicenter of the 2000 election fiasco, there were long lines but none of the glitches -- like the infamous “butterfly ballot” -- that clouded results four years ago.

Democrats in Jacksonville were so pleased that they called the supervisor of elections, a Republican, to pay their compliments. “We couldn’t be happier,” said Duval County Democratic Party Chairman Clyde Collins.

The early returns shaped up the way most experts had predicted. Bush swept the South -- including Florida -- and carried West Virginia, the states of the Great Plains and Colorado.

Kerry secured his base in the Northeast and captured New Hampshire, a state Bush won four years ago. Kerry also won Maryland and Pennsylvania, a state the president had visited more than any other.

Kerry swept the West Coast, carrying California, Oregon and Washington state. He also won New York and Illinois and among the biggest prizes.

Both sides expressed confidence even as the outcome hung in doubt, mindful of how the last presidential race wound up in front of the U.S. Supreme Court after weeks of uncertainty.

“I believe I will win, thank you very much,” the president told reporters ushered in for a photo opportunity Tuesday evening at the White House, where Bush and family members watched the election returns. “I feel good about it.... It’s going to be an exciting evening.”

Ohio’s two Republican senators issued a statement early this morning urging Kerry to concede and “and spare the country the turmoil of another drawn-out election.”

Speaking to reporters in Boston, where the senator from Massachusetts was surrounded at his Beacon Hill mansion by his family, Kerry spokesman Mike McCurry said, “At the end of the day, we win. I’m not sure what day, but we win.”

As yet another inconclusive election night wore on, the candidates stayed out of sight.

Their supporters, gathered at marathon receptions, did their best to remain festive, the mood shifting through the night as the TV networks colored in their big-screen maps.

In Washington, where Bush supporters gathered in the atrium of the Ronald Reagan Building, the spirits of the president’s supporters soared after midnight as the results seemed to shift in the president’s favor. Waving miniature American flags and toasting with champagne-filled flutes, the crowd cheered wildly as the numbers suggested that Bush was inching closer to victory.

“We’re going to stay all night,” a member of a country band proclaimed after the group delivered a rousing rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”

In Boston, the atmospherics were almost the opposite, good cheer giving way to anxiety and a touch of defiance as the night wore on. A little after 1 a.m., a cheer went up from supporters milling in rain-drenched Copley Plaza when CNN declared Ohio too close to call.

“We still believe,” shouted a man, holding aloft a sign that read, “If the Red Sox can do it, so can Kerry.”

It was a long night for the contestants as well -- one in a succession, as the two wrapped up the campaign with a final push that continued even after the polls had opened Tuesday.

His eyes puffy from fatigue, Bush started the day by casting his ballot at the fire station in Crawford, Texas, near his vacation ranch. Asked by reporters about the passions his presidency had stirred, Bush laughed.

“I take that as a compliment. It means I’m willing to take a stand,” he said. As the president spoke, his wife, Laura, held his hand and stroked it with her thumb. “That’s why I’m comfortable about this election. I’ve given it my all,” Bush said.

After voting, Bush headed back to Washington to watch the election returns. He stopped in Columbus, Ohio, where he dropped by the state GOP headquarters to thank campaign volunteers. Over the door, a handmade sign read, “Leave no phone number behind” -- a play on the president’s education slogan to “leave no child behind.”

He took over one phone call from a volunteer.

“Julie, this is President Bush calling. How are you?” he said into the phone, putting his finger into his other ear. “No, I promise you it’s me.... I’m proud to have your support.”

And with that, the president ended his run for reelection.

On the flight back to Washington, Bush and his staff relaxed by watching a slideshow of campaign photos. In the evening, about 25 close family members and close friends of the first couple gathered in the White House residence for a buffet dinner and to watch returns.

Kerry began election day at 1:30 a.m., greeting jubilant supporters huddled in a chilly airport hangar in La Crosse, Wis. After catching several hours of sleep, the Democratic candidate met with volunteers heading out to canvass for votes, telling them, “I’m counting on you.”

“We’re linking hearts and hands, and we’re going to take America back to a better place,” Kerry said.

Afterward, he flew to Boston and was joined by his wife and two daughters, who accompanied him to his polling place at the Massachusetts Statehouse. “I don’t think anyone can anticipate what it’s like seeing your name on the ballot for president,” he said afterward.

In keeping with his election day tradition, Kerry had lunch at the Union Oyster House and did not appear the least bit queasy -- he ordered a dozen littleneck clams, coleslaw, mashed potatoes, sole and a dark ale.

Afterward, he headed to a hotel adjacent to the plaza, where he squeezed in a last burst of campaigning, conducting 38 satellite interviews with TV stations around the country in four hours. (Bush tried to do four last-minute satellite interviews with Florida stations, but the cloud cover over Columbus prevented communication.)

Tuesday’s results capped a tumultuous period in American history -- a span that included the disputed 2000 election, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, two wars and a prolonged and nasty presidential campaign that was the costliest ever.

Bush took office in 2001, after losing the popular vote to Vice President Al Gore by more than 500,000 votes, after the 5-4 Supreme Court ruling ended a 37-day stalemate over Florida’s electoral votes.

The Texas governor had campaigned as “a different kind of Republican,” promising to bridge the partisan divide that lingered in Washington from the Clinton era. Instead, Bush proved to be one of the nation’s most polarizing presidents, turning red and blue from mere colors to the symbolic shadings of a deeply split nation.

Despite the absence of a popular mandate, Bush pursued a conservative agenda of tax cuts, deregulation and faith-based social policies, working around the Democratic minority in Congress. Republicans were thrilled, supporting him in numbers that even Ronald Reagan never enjoyed.

Democrats grew bitter, all the more so as their relevancy in Washington continued to shrink.

Just about eight months into his term, the president enjoyed middling approval ratings, and the dominant political issue was the growing controversy over stem cell research, which Bush sought to limit.

Gore was contemplating a repeat run, and other Democrats were eager to jump into the contest against an incumbent who seemed a fair bet to wind up a one-termer.

That changed on a sparkling September morning, when hijackers commandeered four passenger jets and killed nearly 3,000 people in the worst act of terrorism on U.S. soil.

After the attacks, Bush rallied a shellshocked nation behind the invasion of Afghanistan, routing the Taliban government that sheltered Al Qaeda terrorists and the 9/11 mastermind, Osama bin Laden.

At one point, Bush’s approval rating hit 90% -- a record for a sitting president -- and pundits declared him a shoo-in for reelection in 2004.

The decision to invade Iraq in March 2003 was also popular at first. Bush cited many reasons to go to war a second time, but the main one was to prevent a repeat of 9/11 by stopping Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from striking with the weapons of mass destruction that U.S. intelligence suggested he was harboring.

Even though major allies such as Germany and France balked, the invasion initially went well -- too well, Bush later said, as it left opposition forces to regroup as the insurgents battling U.S. forces today.

Despite the administration’s ominous warnings, however, the weapons of mass destruction never materialized, and the spiraling death toll -- now surpassing 1,000 U.S. troops -- caused many Americans to second-guess the president.

Adding to his problems, Bush was also the first president in 72 years to preside over a net loss of jobs, as Kerry ceaselessly reminded voters. That performance, combined with the worsening situation in Iraq, dragged down Bush’s approval ratings to the 45%-to-50% range -- not good, not bad.

On the Democratic side, Gore’s decision to step aside threw the party’s nominating contest wide open.

Kerry was an early favorite, based on his enviable fundraising base and collection of top-notch strategists. But he foundered on his difficulty in connecting with audiences and his inability to distill a coherent, compelling message -- problems that plagued him throughout the fall campaign.

The surprise of 2003 was former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, whose passionate antiwar rhetoric and innovative use of the Internet pushed him to the front of the Democratic field.

Kerry, given up for dead by most political pundits, gambled by mortgaging his Boston mansion and wagering millions on a victory in the opening Iowa caucuses. Coming from far back in the pack of nine Democratic candidates, his big win there catapulted him to the nomination, past Edwards, who finished a surprising second.

With little left in the bank, many expected Kerry would be buried in a blizzard of negative advertising that Bush began almost the instant his Democratic rival emerged.

But Kerry stayed competitive with the president in the polls, quickly replenishing his campaign coffers and getting a big lift from millions of dollars in advertisements placed by independent liberal groups. The so-called 527 groups, named after their governing provision in the tax code, rose to new prominence in the election as a result of reform legislation that restricted donations to the major political parties.

It was an independent conservative organization formed by a group of Vietnam veterans, that proved the most nettlesome to Kerry’s campaign. Though many of their claims about Kerry’s military actions in Vietnam proved false, the group -- calling itself Swift Boat Veterans for Truth -- managed to scuff up Kerry’s reputation as a decorated veteran.

Kerry had made his war heroism the centerpiece of his summer nominating convention, and many Democrats came to view that decision as a major strategic blunder.

Bush’s convention, set in New York City, was built around memories of Sept. 11 and relentless attacks on Kerry’s credibility and capacity to serve as a wartime commander in chief.

Bush surged in the polls, and by Labor Day, many had written Kerry’s political obituary for the second time in the campaign. Assailing Kerry as a flip-flopper and warning of the continued threat of terrorism, the president appeared in a position to close out the race entering a series of three debates last month.

But Kerry’s strong performance -- and Bush’s peevish behavior in their first meeting -- helped put the Massachusetts senator back into the contest, allowing him to pull even with Bush in opinion polls.

There the campaign stayed, knotted until election day, when pollsters declared the contest simply too close to call.

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Times staff writers Matea Gold and Maura Reynolds contributed to this report.


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