WASHINGTON — President Bush won a second term from a divided and anxious nation, his promise of steady, strong wartime leadership trumping John Kerry’s fresh-start approach to Iraq and joblessness. After a long, tense night of vote counting, the Democrat called Bush to concede Ohio and the presidency, The Associated Press learned.
Nothing was settled or conceded in the first light of day, but Kerry faced a daunting task trying to deny Bush an electoral majority that was almost within reach. The Democrat’s campaign planned a statement by midday, advisers said.
”We are convinced that President Bush has won re-election,” said White House chief of staff Andy Card. But that conviction did not sway Democrats, who insisted Kerry was still in contention for Ohio’s decisive cache of 20 electoral votes.
Bush himself planned to declare victory before long. Republican Party Chairman Marc Racicot said the president put it off temporarily as a courtesy to Kerry, ”to allow the opportunity to look at the situation in the cold hard light of day.”
Before both sides retired for an hour or two of sleep, one top Kerry adviser said the Democrat’s chances of winning Ohio, and with it the White House, were difficult at best. Advisers planned one last look for uncounted ballots that might close the gap before meeting with the candidate Wednesday to determine whether he should concede or fight on.
Kerry’s braintrust met first thing today and planned at least one other session before taking their recommendation to the senator, said several officials involved in the deliberations.
”We will fight for every vote,” John Edwards, Kerry’s running mate, told supporters in Boston in the wee hours today. ”We’ve waited four years for this victory. We can wait one more night.”
Continuity was the result elsewhere in government, with the GOP padding its Senate majority — knocking out Democratic leader Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota in the process — and easily hanging on to the House. That will be the state of play on Capitol Hill for the next two years, with the chance of a Supreme Court nomination fight looming along with legislative battles.
Glitches galore cropped up in overwhelmed polling places as Americans voted in high numbers, fired up by unprecedented registration drives, the excruciatingly close contest and the sense that these were unusually consequential times.
”The mood of the voter in this election is different than any election I’ve ever seen,” said Sangamon County, Ill., clerk Joseph Aiello. ”There’s more passion. They seem to be very emotional. They’re asking lots of questions, double-checking things.”
Republicans flocked to the morning talk shows to promote a sense of inevitability about a Bush victory. Racicot, on NBC’s ”Today” show, said it was ”almost mathematically impossible” for Kerry to overcome Bush’s lead in Ohio.
The country exposed its rifts on matters of great import in Tuesday’s voting. Exit polls found the electorate split down the middle or very close to it on whether the nation is moving in the right direction, on what to do in Iraq, on whom they trust with their security.
The electoral map today looked much like it did before; the question mark had moved and little else.
Bush built a solid foundation by hanging on to almost all the battleground states he got last time. Facing the cruel arithmetic of attrition, Kerry needed to do more than go one state better than Al Gore four years ago; redistricting since then had left those 2000 Democratic prizes 10 electoral votes short of the total needed to win the presidency.
Florida fell to Bush again, close but no argument about it.
And so all eyes turned to Ohio, where Democrats clung to hopes that provisional ballots would overcome Bush’s lead. With Bush leading by 145,000 votes, one top Kerry adviser said the Democrat’s chances were tough.
Bush’s relentless effort to wrest Pennsylvania from the Democratic column fell short. He had visited the state 44 times, more than any other. Kerry picked up New Hampshire in perhaps the election’s only turnover.
In Ohio, Kerry won among young adults, but lost in every other age group. One-fourth of Ohio voters identified themselves as born-again Christians and they backed Bush by a 3-to-1 margin.
A sideline issue in the national presidential campaign, gay civil unions may have been a sleeper that hurt Kerry — who strongly supports that right — in Ohio and elsewhere. Ohioans expanded their law banning gay marriage, already considered the toughest in the country, with an even broader constitutional amendment against civil unions.
In all, voters in 11 states approved constitutional amendments limiting marriage to one man and one woman.
For all the stumping in Ohio, nine in 10 voters had made up their minds before the last week, and they favored Bush. True to his reputation as a strong closer, Kerry performed better than Bush among those who decided late.
In Florida, Kerry again won only among voters under age 30. Six in 10 voters said Florida’s economy was in good shape, and they voted heavily for Bush. Voters also gave the edge to Bush’s handling of terrorism.
The dispute in Ohio concerned provisional ballots — those cast by people whose qualifications to vote were challenged or whose names were missing from the voter rolls.
Nationwide, with 98 percent of the precincts reporting, 112 million people had voted — up from 105 million in 2000. Bush was ahead in the popular vote, which he lost in 2000, and independent Ralph Nader was proving to be much less of a factor this year than four years ago.
Exit polls conducted for The Associated Press and the television networks by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International suggested that slightly more voters trusted Bush to handle terrorism than Kerry. A majority said the country was safer from terrorism than in 2000, and they overwhelmingly backed Bush.
But many said things were going poorly in Iraq, and they heavily favored Kerry. And 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.