Bush, Gore locked in close contest for president

Texas Gov. George W. Bush fought Al Gore in an agonizingly close presidential election Tuesday that came down to one state and a few thousand votes. Gore called Bush with congratulations, then called back to say he wasn't ready to concede.

There was no argument from the Bush campaign, just disbelief at the turn of events.

''Unbelievable,'' sighed Bush adviser Karen Hughes, after fielding the second call from Gore.

It was an incredible political spectacle by any standard. ''There's never been a night like this one,'' said Gore campaign chairman William Daley, after his boss retired for the night - unsure whether he had won or not.

''Until the results in Florida become official,'' Daley told cheering supporters, ''our campaign continues.''

And it was so. After months of campaigning and $3 billion in political spending, Election Day passed without the country knowing who would be president.

Not that it mattered in the Electoral College, but with votes tallied from 96 percent of the precincts, Gore had 47,242,846 and Bush had 47,101,968 votes. Green Party candidate Ralph Nader was at 3 percent and Pat Buchanan barely registered.

Nader did well enough in to potentially tip several states to Bush. ''You can't spoil a system spoiled to the core,'' he said.

TV networks projected Bush the winner, igniting GOP celebrations in Austin. The Associated Press - partners with the networks in Voter News Service - did not declare a presidential winner, citing the ongoing tally. Later the networks rolled back and declared the election too close to call, as did the New York Times.

Florida had been the epicenter of the campaign all along and Tuesday night was beyond chaotic. At midevening news organizations said Gore was the winner, but they backtracked as more votes were counted and Bush eased ahead. Hours later, the TV outlets did it again, this time for Bush.

Republicans maintained precarious control of Congress as the GOP bid to hold the House, Senate and presidency for the first time in 46 years.

In New York, Hillary Rodham Clinton made history, becoming the nation's first first lady to win a Senate seat. ''You taught me, you tested me,'' Mrs. Clinton told her adopted New Yorkers. ''I am determined to make a difference for all of you.''

Republicans held 50 seats to the Democrats' 48 with races in Michigan and Washington state unresolved. Those 50 seats were enough to ensure GOP control no matter who won the cliffhanger presidential race.

A Gore victory would elevate his running mate, Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, to the vice presidency, opening the door for GOP Connecticut Gov. John Rowland to name a Republican replacement. A victory by Bush would make Dick Cheney vice president, in line to break any tie votes in the Senate.

Supporters in Nashville chanted, ''Recount!'' and indeed state law made it certain that whoever wins Florida, officials will review the vote.

In the most dramatic election in decades, it all came down to Florida. AP's analysis showed the narrowest of margins with final votes still being tallied in several Democratic counties and indeed Bush's margin practically disappeared.

''We hope and believe we have elected the next president of the United States,'' said Bush campaign chairman Donald Evans. ''... They are still counting and I am confident when it is all said and done, we will prevail.''

The election offers voters a choice of four more years of Democratic rule or a Republican ''fresh start.''

Florida would give Bush 271 votes in the Electoral College, one over the majority needed to claim the presidency. With all the precincts counted, Bush led by 1,800 votes out of almost 6 million cast, and under state law the margin would require a recount. Some absentee and overseas ballots were yet to be tallied.

Three other states were still to close to call: Oregon, Wisconsin and New Mexico.

The presidential race - among the closest in a generation - foretold the end to Bill Clinton's turbulent eight years in office.

The math was excruciating for both campaigns - both candidates were within reach of an electoral majority, and agonizing defeat. By 4 a.m. EST, Bush had won 29 states for 246 electoral votes of the needed 270. Gore had won 17 states plus the District of Columbia for 243. Florida offered a tantalizing 25 votes to its winner.

Republicans retained control of the Senate - if narrowly - and looked likely to keep a small majority in the House as well. Bush or Gore, the next president will be submitting his first-year agenda to a deeply divided Congress.

Gore won big battlegrounds in Pennsylvania, Michigan and California while Bush claimed Texas, Ohio and a string of smaller states, including Gore's Tennessee and Bill Clinton's Arkansas.

Voters settled a full roster of propositions on the first general election day of the 21st Century. Residents of Colorado and Oregon, shaken by school shooting rampages, cracked down on gun show patrons and sweeping private school voucher proposals were defeated in California and Michigan.

Democrats needed to pick up eight seats in the Senate to wrest control - an uphill task they could not attain.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said, ''I'm used to counting the votes in the Senate and the House of Representatives, but I'm not used to counting votes in the electoral college.''

As the anxiety mounted, Bush changed his plans to watch the returns with a large group of family and friends at a hotel. He opted instead for the seclusion of the governor's mansion.

It was no less tense in Democratic quarters.

''It will be late and there will be lots of surprises,'' Daley said, hours before the big surprise: Gore's concession and retraction.

No vote was overlooked. Party sources say Gore aides called for fresh troops for New Hampshire get out the vote operations. The Ted Kennedy campaign sent 250 or so volunteers - all that for four electoral votes.

Interviews as voters left their polling places by Voter News Service said that a candidate's position on issues was more influential than his personal qualities, and about one in five voters didn't make up their minds until the last week. Many of those tipped toward Gore.

In Senate races, former Virginia Gov. George Allen ousted Sen. Charles Robb from the Senate, diminishing Democratic hopes to regain control. Republicans also picked up a Democrat seat in Nevada, while Democrats picked up GOP seats in Florida, Delaware and Minnesota.

In Missouri, Republican Sen. John Ashcroft was defeated by the state's dead governor, Mel Carnahan, who was killed on a campaign flight in October. Gov. Roger Wilson said he would appoint Carnahan's widow, Jean, if her husband topped the ballot.

Rep. Jim Rogan lost his southern California seat in the costliest House race in history. Rogan was a leader in the House impeachment effort.

There were hopes the showdown would inspire higher turnout, reversing the trend of recent elections. At a West Little Rock polling site, the line snaked through a church gymnasium and out into the parking lot. In Reisterstown, Md., attorney Paul Beckman said, ''I'd walk a mile to vote.''

Eleven gubernatorial contests were being decided Tuesday, along with legislatures that will wield wide influence in next year's congressional redistricting. Democrats held their governorships in Delaware, New Hampshire, Indiana, New Hampshire and North Carolina - and scored an upset in West Virginia, where Gov. Cecil Underwood lost to Rep. Bob Wise.

But it was the race between the son of a former president and the son of a former senator that captured the attention of voters who had often ignored politics during recent years of relative peace and ongoing prosperity.

Bush, 54, just six years into his first political job, promised to end the Clinton-Gore ''season of cynicism,'' cut taxes, improve schools, build up the military and reshape Social Security. Benefiting from family connections and Texas-sized expectations, Bush raised a record-shattering $103 million as he aimed to settle a score as well as reach the political pinnacle: Clinton-Gore swept his father from office in 1993.

In TV ads and on the campaign trail, Bush said Gore couldn't be trusted. Gore, 52, said Bush didn't have the experience to be president. The Texas governor countered by tapping his father's defense secretary Dick Cheney, a Washington veteran, as running mate.

Gore chose Lieberman, the first Jewish candidate on a major national ticket, and a voice of moral authority during the impeachment debate.

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