Tuesday, November 2, 2004

The biggest prize in American politics and the most powerful job in the world is up for grabs today, and both President Bush and his Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry, can see a path to victory in the presidential race.

Millions of voters already have cast ballots amid Democrats’ charges of voter intimidation and Republicans’ accusations of voter fraud. Both parties have prepared major efforts to monitor the polls today and have teams of lawyers ready to begin the challenges tomorrow.

Polls show voters are just as evenly divided as in 2000, when Mr. Bush lost the national popular vote to Democratic Al Gore by fewer than 550,000 votes, but won the presidency through the Electoral College, after the Supreme Court halted a recount of votes in Florida.

The anti-Bush sentiment that developed among Democrats was halted temporarily by the September 11 terrorist attacks. But it was back in full force by the Democratic primaries, fueled by Mr. Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq, and has given momentum to the man who emerged from the bruising primary season, the junior senator from Massachusetts.

“This is the choice, this is the moment of accountability for America,” Mr. Kerry told a rally in Florida yesterday. “It’s a moment where the world is watching what you’re going to do. All of the hopes and dreams — all of the hopes and dreams of our country are on the line today.”

He has offered voters his 20 years in the Senate and his record as a decorated Navy lieutenant in Vietnam, along with a heavy dose of criticism of the president’s record on the economy and his management of the war in Iraq.

Mr. Bush, son of a former president and the former governor of Texas, claims two major tax cuts, his federal education policy overhaul and his decision to fight terrorism as reasons to vote for him.

“I’m confident we’re going to win,” the president told reporters yesterday at a Pittsburgh airport. “The finish line is in sight, and I just want to assure you I’ve got the energy and the optimism and the enthusiasm to cross the line.”

Both men had rallies planned to last into today’s early morning hours — Mr. Bush in Dallas and Mr. Kerry in Wisconsin.

In addition to the presidency, all 435 House seats, 34 Senate seats and 11 governorships are up for election today.

Most politicos expect Republicans to keep their majority in the House, thanks in large part to big gains in the redistricted Texas, but their continued control of the Senate is much less certain. With five open Democratic seats, three open Republican seats and one or two vulnerable incumbents on each side, either party can see a path to the majority.

Voters in 11 states also will decide on ballot questions to establish their definition of marriage as the union between a man and a woman, measures which are expected to boost conservative Christian turnout and help Mr. Bush.

Michigan and Ohio, two critical states in the presidential race, are among those.

Courts in Ohio yesterday ruled against a state law that would have let the parties post election watchers at polling places to challenge potential voters’ qualifications. Republicans have said they will appeal the ruling.

The University of Pennsylvania’s National Annenberg Election Survey found that just 62 percent of registered voters are “very confident” that their vote will be counted accurately.

The Democratic National Committee (DNC) announced yesterday that 5 million voters already have voted in 19 states they are tracking, and DNC officials have gone back and traced the party registration or voting history of 3.1 million of them. Of that 3.1 million, the DNC said, registered Democrats are outperforming Republicans by 6.25 percent.

The party also said more than a quarter of the voters they traced were “sporadic voters,” meaning that they had never voted before or only in one of the past four elections. The DNC said those voters also tended to be Democrats.

More than 105 million people voted in 2000, but estimates run as high as 125 million votes this year — an indication of the intensity of support or opposition on both sides.

The two presidential candidates met face to face for three debates, and their running mates squared off once, but with the election battleground so narrow, they have crossed paths more often, including yesterday in Wisconsin.

Shortly after Mr. Kerry’s plane landed in Milwaukee yesterday afternoon, his lengthy motorcade passed by the smaller motorcade hauling White House correspondents fresh from a Bush campaign event.

Moments later, as Mr. Kerry’s screaming and blinking entourage of police cars, black Suburbans and tour buses slowed to a creep along a soggy Wisconsin highway, Air Force One took off overhead, seemingly close enough for Mr. Kerry to reach out and touch, then disappeared quickly into the low clouds.

After voting in October 2002 to authorize war in Iraq, Mr. Kerry has become its most-visible critic, although he says the United States must remain engaged.

“I believe that we can bring the world back to the side of America,” he said yesterday. “I believe we can regain America’s respect and influence in the world, and I believe we deserve a president who knows how to fight a more effective war on terror and make America safe.”

But Mr. Bush, speaking in Des Moines, Iowa, said voters should believe in his steadfastness.

“The American president must lead with clarity and purpose. The role of the president is not to follow the path of the latest polls,” he said. “The role of the president is to lead based upon principle and conviction and conscience.”

The presidency won’t be decided officially until December, when each state’s slate of electors meet at their state capitals. But each man’s share of the 538 electoral votes should be clear by tomorrow morning.

A half dozen new polls released over the weekend and yesterday show the two men within a percentage point or two of each other.

RealClearPolitics.com, which tracks and averages together the national and state opinion polls, gives Mr. Bush a 1.5 percentage-point lead over Mr. Kerry. In the Electoral College vote, the Web site figures that Mr. Bush has 227 votes and Mr. Kerry has 207 votes, while the other 104 votes are in states that are too close to call.

There are fewer than a dozen states considered truly in play in the presidential election, with Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio being the biggest prizes among them. They account respectively for 27, 21 and 20 electoral votes.

One possible curveball today is that voters in Colorado could end up backing a ballot proposition to split the state’s electoral votes proportionately, rather than winner-take-all. Polls show the proposal is likely to fail, but if it did pass, it would apply to today’s election, cutting into the prize for whoever the overall winner is.

In case of a tie vote in the Electoral College, the matter would be thrown into the hands of Congress, where the House would select the president and the Senate would select the vice president.

Also, independent candidate Ralph Nader could siphon off enough votes from Mr. Kerry in some states to give Mr. Bush a plurality and allow him to claim those electoral votes. This was the situation in Florida and several other states in 2000.

This year marks the first national election under the new campaign-finance rules that Congress approved and Mr. Bush signed into law in 2002. Those rules eliminated the parties’ dependence on uncapped political donations, but tax-exempt “527” organizations have picked up the slack this year, pouring millions into attacks on the two candidates.

One group, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, turned the race upside down in August, dominating the news as they charged Mr. Kerry with lying about his service record and then insulting troops by protesting the Vietnam War upon his return.

One factor the candidates can’t control is the weather, and rainy conditions can cost votes, particularly among Democrats, according to strategists. The forecast calls for snow in Colorado; rain in Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh; clouds in Philadelphia and sun in Miami.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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