WASHINGTON – With Ohio looming as a Florida redux, President Bush prepared to declare re-election victory this morning and Democratic rival John Kerry refused to concede.
“We will fight for every vote,” said Kerry running mate John Edwards.
After winning Nevada and pulling within 16 electoral votes of the 270 required for a second term, Bush was laying claim to Ohio’s 20 over Kerry’s objections. “We will not base our decision on a concession,” said Bush adviser Dan Bartlett as other aides said Bush would soon go before supporters to declare victory.
Ceding nothing, Kerry dispatched Edwards to tell supporters in Boston: “We’ve waited four years for this victory. We can wait one more night.”
The 92-word statement was an eerie echo of 2000 when advisers to both Bush and Democrat Al Gore told supporters that the race was too close to call – setting off a 36-day recount and a Supreme Court ruling that put Bush in office.
Republicans expanded their majority in the Senate, knocking off Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle in a grim night for Democrats. The GOP also extended its decade-long hold on the House for another two years, knocking off four veteran Texas Democrats.
As for Bush, declaring victory is nothing more than a weapon in political warfare. It has no bearing on who will serve as president a minute past noon Jan. 20, 2005, but the White House hopes the tactic will undercut challenges and create a sense of inevitability about Bush’s second term.
Not so fast, said Kerry’s team. Democrats were considering sending political and legal teams to Ohio, already the scene of dueling lawsuits over provisional ballots. Inside the Bush campaign, an intense debate waged into the wee hours as some aides said parachuting teams into Ohio would only create a political stalemate in a state Bush hopes he has already won.
Florida fell into Bush’s lap with relative ease. Kerry took New Hampshire from Bush – the first and perhaps only state to switch parties — but it has just four electoral votes. That left Ohio as Kerry’s only hope.
The holdup was over provisional ballots — those cast by people whose qualifications to vote were challenged. At 3 a.m. EST, Bush had a lead of 125,000 votes; there were more provisional ballots outstanding.
“There’s no mathematical path to victory for Kerry in Ohio,” said Nicolle Devenish, spokeswoman for the Bush-Cheney campaign, arguing that Bush would get his share of the provisional ballots. The White House had contacted Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, urging the Republican to clarify the number of provisional ballots.
Nationwide, with 94 percent of the nation’s precincts reporting, some 109 million people had voted — up from 105 million in 2000.
Bush was winning the popular vote by around 3.8 million, or 51.3 percent to Kerry’s 47.8 percent.
Early in the voting, Kerry allowed himself to muse about the problems he might face in the White House, including a soaring deficit and a war that has claimed more than 1,100 lives.
“I’m not pretending to anybody that it’s a bed of roses,” said the 60-year-old Massachusetts senator.
The Electoral College count was excruciating: With 270 votes needed, Bush won 28 states for 254 votes. Kerry won 18 states plus the District of Columbia for 242 votes.
With four states out, Kerry was still on the hunt for electoral votes that the GOP won four years ago. The states won by Gore in 2000 are worth just 260 votes this year due to redistricting — 10 short of the coveted number.
Kerry could pick that up plus some with Ohio’s 20 electoral votes.
A 269-269 tie would throw the presidential race to the House.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.: “Obviously the presidential race is going to keep us up most of the night.”
Alongside the White House and congressional races, a full roster of propositions and local offices kept voters busy. But all eyes were focused on Kerry’s bid to make Bush the first president voted out of office in the midst of a war.
“I’ve given it my all,” Bush said after voting in a firehouse at Crawford, Texas, hoping to avoid being the first wartime president bounced from office.
Save Ohio, the race was a carbon copy of 2000, a narrowly fought battle waged by lawyers and politicians alike. In 2000, Bush lost the popular vote to 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 ousted by voters in 1992 after waging war against Iraq and overseeing an ailing economy.
Legions of lawyers and election-rights activists watched for signs of voter fraud or disenfranchisement. New lawsuits sought clearer standards to evaluate provisional ballots in Ohio and a longer deadline to count absentee ballots in Florida.
While complaints were widespread, they weren’t significant. “So far, it’s no big, but lots of littles,” said elections expert Doug Chapin.
Voters 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. A majority said the country was safer from terrorism than four years ago, and they overwhelmingly backed Bush.
However, among those who said they were very worried about a terrorist strike, Kerry held a slight lead. A majority of voters said things were going poorly in Iraq, and they heavily favored Kerry.
With nearly 1 million jobs lost in Bush’s term, Kerry was favored by eight of 10 voters who listed the economy as a top issue.
The nation’s mood? There was division on that, too. Half said the country was headed in the right direction, a good sign for the incumbent.
Voters welcomed an end to the longest, most expensive presidential 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.
Both sides spent a combined $600 million on TV and radio ads, more than twice the total from 2000.
Bush won among white men, voters with family incomes above $100,000 and weekly churchgoers. Three-fourths of white voters who described themselves as born-again Christians or evangelicals supported Bush.
The president had hoped to increase his support among the religious right since 2000, but exit polls suggest there was little change.
Kerry retained Gore’s margins among blacks and union households, key parts of the Democratic base. His voters named the economy and Iraq as top issues.
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.
Poring over exit polls and field reports, Bush’s aides in Arlington, Va., 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.
Kerry’s aides also 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.
Bush won Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming.
Kerry won California, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and statewide in Maine.
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.
Eleven gubernatorial contests were being decided Tuesday, along with 5,800 legislative seats in 44 states. Former Bush administration budget director Mitch Daniels won the governorship in Indiana, taking the seat from the Democrats.
Among the notable ballot measures, voters in 11 states approved propositions that would ban gay marriage. In California, voters approved spending $3 billion on stem-cell research.