Bush on brink as all eyes turn to Ohio
(c) 2004, The Washington Post
WASHINGTON – President Bush moved to the brink of securing his bid for re-election early Wednesday morning, winning the prized battleground of Florida and holding a small but persistent lead over Sen. John Kerry in Ohio. The Massachusetts senator’s slim hopes for capturing the White House appeared to depend on his ability to overcome Bush’s margin in Ohio and then hold several other states that were still counting ballots.
Kerry’s running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, appeared in Boston’s Copley Plaza at 2:30 a.m. vowing to continue the fight. “John Kerry and I made a promise to the American people that in this election every vote would count and every vote would be counted. Tonight we are keeping oru word. We will fight for every vote. You deserve no less.”
A Kerry staff member reported pandemonium inside the campaign.
With more than 90 percent of precincts in Ohio, Bush led Kerry with 51 percent of the vote, and by 2 a.m. two networks projected that Bush would win the state.
Republicans expanded their majority in the Senate and appeared likely to do the same in the House. In Senate races, the GOP picked up open Democratic seats in Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina and South Carolina, while Democrats captured open Republican seats in Illinois and Colorado. In the most closely watched race, Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle was narrowly trailing former House member John Thune (R) in South Dakota.
With the election shaped by the fight against terrorism and the country deeply divided over the war in Iraq and the economy, energized voters poured out in extraordinary numbers nationwide, prodded by two campaigns that worked overtime to get their supporters to the polls.
After a night of agonizing counting and mood changes inside the two campaigns, the 2004 campaign appeared to be a virtual rerun of the hard-fought contest that brought Bush to the presidency four years ago. The Kerry campaign rested its hopes on provisional and other ballots still uncounted in Ohio, which Republicans said still would not be enough to carry the state.
Polling places in some battlegrounds, including Ohio, stayed open long after their scheduled closings, as officials struggled to handle a surge in turnout that some experts said could match the most recent high-water mark set in 1992 – and perhaps exceed it. Despite threats of legal challenges and other disruptions, voting generally appeared to go smoothly in most states.
Early exit polls appeared to give Kerry a small advantage but as the night wore on and the actual vote tallies mounted, Democratic exuberance gave way to tense hours of counting and increasing pessimism. When the president fought off the Massachusetts senator’s challenge in Florida, the state that produced the bitter 36-day recount battle four years ago, he significantly complicated Kerry’s route to the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House.
Other states still undecided Wednesday morning included Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, New Mexico and Nevada. All of those, with the exception of Nevada, went for the Democrats in 2000. Bush was leading New Mexico, while Kerry led in Wisconsin and Michigan. Nevada and Iowa were evenly split, and in Iowa the secretary of state announced the count would not be completed until later Wednesday.
The pattern of the returns proved to be a virtual rerun of the 2000 election, with many of the states that created such drama in that contest once again keeping the candidates and the American people on edge as they watched returns roll in. By early Wednesday morning, only one state had switched sides, with Kerry taking back New Hampshire from the Republicans. That put Bush’s electoral total at 249 to Kerry’s 225.
Otherwise, there were no surprises as the states began to report. Bush methodically secured his base in the South and border states, capturing his home state of Texas as well as Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana Tennessee, Missouri and Kentucky. He won Indiana and West Virginia, which was a Democratic bastion until Bush won it four years ago. In the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, he rolled to a series of victories.
Kerry began a march across the country’s northern tier, beginning in New England with victories in his home state of Massachusetts as well as in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Vermont. To that he added Maryland, the District, and several big prizes: California, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, which the Bush campaign looked at briefly, and Illinois, one of the few states in the Midwest that was not closely contested.
But the two sides were focused on two of the biggest states where the candidates had spent most of their time and money, Florida and Ohio, and on half a dozen other states that could tip the balance: Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Iowa, New Hampshire and New Mexico. As the counts came in, the campaigns struggled to examine the data for clues to the outcome.
Kerry was running ahead of Bush in New Hampshire, a state he hoped to take away from the president. In Wisconsin, which strategists in both camps saw as potentially decisive if Kerry were to win Ohio, Kerry held a one-point lead over Bush with 65 percent of the precincts counted.
According to National Election Pool interviews of voters leaving the polls, Bush appeared to be in a real fight to hold his presidency and avoid joining his father in being swept out of office after a single term. President George H.W. Bush lost his reelection bid in 1992 to Bill Clinton, and the current president systematically sought to avoid the mistakes he believed cost his father that election. But judging from exit polls, he had not expanded his coalition in any significant ways from four years ago, leading to the fight that was unfolding last night.
After the 2000 election, the country united around Bush’s presidency when terrorists attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. But that unity faded and, after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the nation became polarized. Tuesday’s electorate appeared as divided as it was four years ago.
Bush and Kerry monitored the voting last night from their respective bases of operation in Washington and Massachusetts. Bush voted in Texas in the morning, stopped in Columbus, Ohio, in a show of support for his campaign workers there and returned to Washington in the afternoon.
Bush spent the evening at the White House residence, surrounded by family and a few close advisers. Kerry began his day in La Crosse, Wis. He then flew to Boston to vote and returned to his Beacon Hill home. He spent four hours doing 38 satellite interviews with local television stations, trying to spur his supporters to vote. His running mate joined in that effort.
Three issues dominated the campaign and shaped Tuesday’s vote: terrorism, the war in Iraq and the national economy. Kerry overwhelmingly won among those who said Iraq and the economy were the most important issues to them, while Bush won by a landslide among those who cited terrorism. Beyond those issues, a fifth of Tuesday’s voters said moral values influenced their choice, and Bush won them by 4 to 1.
No barometer has been watched more closely throughout the campaign than the president’s approval rating, often considered an indicator of the chance of winning re-election. Former presidents Ronald Reagan and Clinton were reelected with approval ratings in the mid-50s, while former presidents George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter lost when their approval ratings plunged to 40 percent or below.
Tuesday, according to exit polls, Bush’s approval rating stood at 51 percent, still occupying a political netherworld that provided evidence of how competitive the presidential race remained to the end.
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Outside events shaped the campaign far more than the candidates’ strategists did, helping to negate some of the normal advantages enjoyed by an incumbent seeking reelection. The campaigns battled over whether the economy is in clear recovery or is still struggling. At several crucial turns, jobs figures put Bush on the defensive, and voters gave the economy negative marks Tuesday, but split over whom they trust more to fix things.
Iraq proved even more troubling for the president. As the general election campaign opened in the spring, a succession of events put him back on his heels, such as evidence that the insurgency was stronger than the United States had estimated, mounting casualties and then the prison abuse scandal. Bush struggled to explain his policy.
In the final weeks, Iraq took center stage again, with stories of kidnappings, beheadings, criticism of the president’s policies and more casualties. Tuesday, voters split almost evenly over whether it was right or wrong to go to war, with a majority saying things there are not going well.
The 2004 campaign will rank as the longest and costliest in American history, a battle that began the day after Kerry wrapped up the Democratic nomination contest on March 3 and continued through the trench warfare of turning out voters until the polls closed last night. At times, it was also one of the most negative, marked by angry anti-Bush energy that first surfaced during the Democratic primaries and by relentless criticism of Kerry by the Bush campaign.
When the Democratic nomination fight began in early 2003, Bush was in a strong position, coming off a historic midterm election victory by his party that was fueled in part by the unity engendered by his actions after the Sept. 11 attacks. He enjoyed an approval rating of 60 percent or better, but over the next months, the president took a huge gamble by beginning the war in Iraq. The success of the initial invasion drove his popularity even higher, but over time, the war became the most divisive decision of his presidency.
When Kerry started his campaign, many Democrats saw him as the front-runner for the nomination. His resume included decorated combat service in Vietnam, seen by many Democrats as inoculation against the party’s traditional deficit on defense and national security issues. He also had almost 20 years of service in the Senate, most of it in the shadows of his Massachusetts colleague, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, but which gave him considerable experience in defense and foreign affairs.
Bush’s campaign wasted no time in going after Kerry, pummeling the Massachusetts senator as a politician who had been on both sides of virtually every major issue of the past two decades. Bush began the attack with a touch of humor, but the Bush campaign’s advertising and Vice President Cheney’s rhetoric carried a much sharper edge that soon began to cut into Kerry profile.
The challenger took a narrow lead heading into his convention in Boston in late July. There over four nights of speeches and celebration, the campaign highlighted the senator’s service in Vietnam, hoping once and for all to convince voters that he had the credentials to be commander in chief. He emerged temporarily stronger – until the Bush campaign and its allies struck back.
August quickly became an ordeal for Kerry. A group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth aired television ads questioning his combat record in Vietnam, and with a minimal amount of money, took the entire presidential campaign back almost four decades into a debate about that divisive war. Bush could not escape the fracas either, with new questions raised about his service during the war, but it was Kerry who bore the brunt of it.
Republicans gathered in New York at the end of August for their convention and skillfully reconnected Bush with the events surrounding Sept. 11, 2001, the high point of his presidency and a powerfully emotional hinge point for the country. The Republicans also used their convention, in a way the Democrats did not, to attack the opposition.
Bush emerged from his convention with a lead in the polls and pressed his advantage throughout September. Kerry went through another staff shakeup, recruiting several veterans of the Clinton administration and realigning responsibilities. He also set the stage for a fresh debate about Bush’s policies in Iraq, reengaging on an issue that had turned into one of Bush’s biggest problems.
The presidential debates gave Kerry another opening and he took advantage of them. In the first debate, Bush looked and occasionally sounded impatient and angry, and even his supporters knew the challenger came out as the winner. Through two more debates, Kerry more than held his own, providing a morale boost to his campaign and, more important, to the legions of Democrats who had watched August and September with growing alarm.
The final weeks generated some of the toughest rhetoric of the campaign and a back-to-basics strategy from both candidates. Fighting more bad news from Iraq, Bush continued to question Kerry’s fitness to lead the country in the war on terrorism. Kerry seized on every headline he could find, including the lack of flu vaccine, to indifferent jobs numbers and missing high explosives in Iraq to argue that Bush’s presidency has been a failure. Kerry called for a fresh start; Bush warned Americans not to take the risk.