- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 3, 2004

President Bush pulled within striking distance of a second term early this morning, although Sen. John Kerry’s campaign vowed to stage a come-from-behind victory in the pivotal state of Ohio.

With 94 percent of the precincts reporting in Ohio, the president had 51 percent of the vote, 2,639,180 votes; and Mr. Kerry had 49 percent, 2,532,530 votes.

Mr. Kerry also trailed in the nationwide popular vote by more than 31/2 million votes. During the 2000 recount wars and since, Democrats often challenged Mr. Bush’s legitimacy by pointing out that he had lost the popular vote to Vice President Al Gore by more than 500,000 votes.

With 84 percent of precincts reporting nationwide amid estimates of a record 120 million voter turnout, the president had 52 percent of the vote, 51,625,653, and Mr. Kerry had 48 percent, 47,984,043.

But the Kerry campaign signaled that it is going to fight the outcome of this election just as Vice President Al Gore did in 2000.

White House strategist Karl Rove told Mr. Bush at about 10:30 p.m. that he would win Ohio, which all but assured him of a second term.

“He’s very optimistic about things right now — we believe we’re going to win Ohio,” a senior Bush aide told The Washington Times. “We’ve won Florida, and it’s five more [electoral votes] after that, which I think we will more than get.”

The Kerry team said they would overcome the 100,000-vote deficit.

“We can wait another night,” said a defiant Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. John Edwards.

“We will fight for every vote. You deserve no less,” he told a raucous rally at 2:30 a.m. in Boston.

His comments echoed an earlier statement by Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill who said, “The vote count in Ohio has not been completed. There are more than 250,000 remaining votes to be counted. We believe when they are, John Kerry will win Ohio.”

If Mr. Bush wins Ohio, he guarantees himself at least a 269-269 tie in the Electoral College, pushing the election into the Republican-controlled House. A victory in any state in addition to Ohio would allow him to clinch the presidency. It takes 270 electoral votes to win the White House.

Several other states remained undecided early this morning. Mr. Bush had narrow leads in Iowa and Nevada, and a healthy lead in New Mexico. Mr. Kerry had leads in Wisconsin and Michigan.

Mr. Bush already had won Florida, the site of the bitterly contested post-election recount wars in 2000. He also looked poised to become the first presidential candidate since 1988 to win a majority of the popular vote.

A confident Mr. Bush allowed network TV cameras into the White House residence last night, where he was watching election returns with family and friends, including his daughters and father, former President George Bush.

“Very upbeat,” the younger Mr. Bush said. “I believe I will win.”

He said it was gratifying to spend the end of the campaign “with my family and friends. It’s going to be an exciting evening.”

A short time later, Kerry advisers promised reporters that there would be a photo opportunity of the Massachusetts senator watching election returns. But about a half-hour later, Kerry adviser Joe Lockhart told reporters that such an event was unlikely.

Mr. Bush’s coattails helped Republicans increase their lead in the Senate by at least three seats, which could have major implications if several Supreme Court justices retire, as expected, during a second Bush term.

Even Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle appeared to be swept out of office, demoralizing Democrats who had hoped to regain control of the Senate. In the House, Republicans preserved their majority by ousting at least four incumbent Texas Democrats thanks to new district lines approved last year, offsetting Democrats’ victories over several Republican incumbents.

Early this morning, Democrats clung to the hope that Mr. Kerry would become the 44th president of the United States. They had believed that by downplaying Mr. Kerry’s ranking as the most liberal member of the Senate, he had convinced Americans that he was better qualified to betheir commander in chief.

In the first presidential election since the September 11 terrorist attacks, Mr. Bush sought to validate his aggressive prosecution of the war on terror and dash doubts about his legitimacy. He also hoped to avoid the fate of his father, who became a one-term president despite a victorious war over Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

There were no surprises among the early states called, with “blue” and “red” states breaking as they did in 2000. Even early this morning, the only state that had definitely switched parties from 2000 was New Hampshire, which backed Mr. Kerry.

Both sides were hoping to avoid a repeat of 2000, when the TV networks prematurely and erroneously declared then-Vice President Al Gore the winner in Florida, only to take back their projections early in the evening and plunge the race into chaos. It took 36 days of postelection litigation before Mr. Gore conceded defeat.

This year’s contest appeared to be even closer than the race four years ago, with most polls showing Mr. Bush with a lead of fewer than two percentage points. The race was equally tight in a handful of battleground states, especially in Ohio, where the lead swung between the candidates in the final days and hours.

After a closing sprint that included seven appearances in six states on Monday, Mr. Bush spent that night at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where he voted yesterday morning with his wife, first lady Laura Bush, and their twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara.

The president then flew to Columbus, Ohio, to thank local campaign volunteers for their months of work. He seemed at peace as he placed his future in the hands of voters.

“We campaigned as hard as we possibly could,” he said. “I have made the differences as clear as possible about why I think I am the best leader for the country for the next four years.”

While Mr. Bush refrained from overtly criticizing his opponent on Election Day, Mr. Kerry savaged the president during an appearance in Wisconsin. He blamed Mr. Bush for job losses, growing deficits and soaring health care costs.

“You have a choice — all Americans have this choice today,” he said. He added that in Iraq, the president “made a choice without a plan to win the peace.”

Later, Mr. Kerry traveled to Boston, where he voted and had lunch. His wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, voted in Pennsylvania, where she owns an estate. Unlike Massachusetts, Pennsylvania was considered a battleground state.

Both sides expected a large turnout, with Democrats and the press saying that would signify a surge of college students and other young voters supporting Mr. Kerry. But Republicans said they also welcomed a large turnout, because it would show that Mr. Bush had enlisted many of the 4 million evangelical Christians who sat out the 2000 election.

In fact, conservatives in general were expected to be drawn to the polls in Ohio and 10 other states by ballot measures against homosexual “marriage.” Liberals countered with ballot measures such as the one in Florida that would raise the minimum wage.

The election came exactly eight months after Mr. Kerry clinched the Democratic nomination by winning nine of 10 primaries and caucuses on “Super Tuesday.” Days later, the president telephoned his challenger to welcome him into the race.

From the outset, the race was dominated by questions of national security, especially the president’s decision to liberate Iraq in spring 2003. Despite a quick and decisive war, the administration miscalculated the challenges of postwar Iraq, where more than 1,000 U.S. soldiers have been killed by a stubborn insurgency.

Throughout it all, the president emphasized the need to stay the course until Iraq stabilized. Although Mr. Kerry made hay of the president’s miscalculations in postwar Iraq, his own shifting positions took a significant political toll on his bid for the White House.

For example, Mr. Kerry voted for a congressional resolution authorizing the president to wage war, but then voted against $87 billion in funding for body armor and combat pay for the troops. To make matters worse, he offered an explanation that only underscored his reputation as a flip-flopper.

“I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it,” Mr. Kerry said on March 16.

The president pounced on the equivocation, and his campaign gleefully made it the centerpiece of a rapid-response TV advertisement. In recent weeks, Mr. Bush has called it “perhaps the most famous quote of the 2004 campaign.”

The utterance helped Bush campaign officials cement Mr. Kerry’s reputation as a political opportunist who could not be trusted.

But they ended up being victims of their own success when Mr. Kerry showed up at the presidential debates and Americans saw a candidate who appeared more reasonable than his caricature on late-night comedy shows.

Consequently, the Democrat was widely considered the winner of the three debates, and Mr. Bush’s lead in the polls evaporated.

The race seemed to grow even tighter in the final days of the campaign, with Mr. Kerry adroitly pounding his opponent with headlines about ongoing problems in Iraq.

For example, he pounced early last week on a news report that an explosives depot in Iraq had been looted, although the veracity of the story subsequently was called into question.

Both candidates spent the final days of the campaign barnstorming through a shrinking number of states considered battlegrounds. Down the homestretch, no states were considered more important than Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and New Mexico.

Mr. Kerry watched the early returns from his Beacon Hill home in Boston.

Throughout the day yesterday, there was cautious excitement among weary Kerry aides. They were mindful of the election four years ago when Democrats rejoiced through Election Day, only to wind up losing the race.

As Mr. Kerry conducted satellite interviews from a hotel room, Cahill and other top Kerry staffers kept working. Rumors buzzed about early exit polling results posted on the Internet that showed Mr. Kerry trouncing Mr. Bush.

Asked about those statistics, campaign spokesman Mike McCurry said, “Yeah, we’ve heard about them, and we don’t put much stock in them this early.”

Earlier in the day, Mr. Kerry went to Union Oyster House for his traditional Election Day meal at the bar. Mr. Kerry enjoyed a dozen little neck clams and a dark ale.

Charles Hurt and Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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