According to television network projections, Mr Clinton was on course to win the nine biggest states except Texas. Early in the evening Mr Dole suffered the fatal blows of losing Florida, which went Democrat for the first time in two decades, and the crucial Midwestern state of Ohio, without which no 20th-century Republican has ever gained the Presidency.
Mr Clinton swept New England and the Midwest with the exception of the Republican stronghold of Indiana, and at 2am all of the US networks declared him winner as he broke through the magic 270 majority of the 538-strong electoral college. The Democratic near certainties of New York and California were yet to come. Mr Dole had carried just eight states, including his native Kansas.
With victory assured, the President's targets were to secure an overall majority of the popular vote, instead of the 43 per cent with which he won in 1992, and to help Democrats regain the Congress which Republicans won in 1994.
The Democrats made an early Senate gain in New Hampshire. But they still needed two more to overturn the 53-47 Republican majority in the outgoing congress. The 93 year-old Republican Strom Thurmond retained his Senate seat in South Carolina, putting him on course to become the first ever centenarian Senator in US history. In North Carolina, the arch-conservative Jesse Helms also won comfortably, but John Kerry rebuffed the challenge of Republican Governor William Weld in the Senate race in Massachusetts.
The House of Representatives, where Democrats need to make a net gain of 19 seats to seize back control of the 435-seat chamber, was also a toss up - but a public desire not to give a "blank cheque' to Mr Clinton and the Democrats may preserve a Republican majority and with it the speakership of Newt Gingrich. If so it would be the first time since 1930 that the party has kept control of Congress for more than two years.
Though recent Democratic campaign finance scandals have raised fresh doubts about Administration ethics and eaten into Mr Clinton's lead, the mood was euphoric on Air Force One as as the Presidential 747 carried Mr Clinton back to Arkansas. Earlier, an exhausted Mr Dole returned to his home town of Russell, Kansas, to vote in his last election after 43 years in national politics. "It's uphill, but it can be done. We've given it our best shot," he declared, bravely but forlornly.
To win, Mr Dole needed what placards at his final rallies were proclaiming as "The Upset of the Century." But the Florida and Ohio results were fatal to his chances. The issues which most mattered were the economy, Medicare and education, all of which play to Mr Clinton's strengths. The President also took the women's vote overwhelmingly.
Polls and the first returns credited the Reform Party candidate Ross Perot with only 8 per cent. Though the Texas billionaire has hardly moved beyond single figures throughout the campaign, a late surge in his support at the expense of the President was the key to Mr Dole's last hope, of capitalising on voters' concerns about the President's character. Mr Perot lambasted the White House over ethics and campaign finance, warning that Mr Clinton could be indicted. "We are on the verge of Watergate II and a constitutional crisis," he declared.
Meanwhile the expected post-election changes at the top of the Administration were taking shape. According to White House officials, Mr Clinton's chief of staff Leon Panetta wants to step down. The favourite to succeed him was Erskine Bowles, a North Carolina merchant banker, who served as deputy chief of staff in the early days of the first Clinton White House. Among others not expected to serve in a second term is the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher. Possible replacements include Madeleine Albright, UN Ambassador, and George Mitchell, former senator and now peace envoy for Ireland.
2am latest: How the voting stood
Bill (49%) Bob (42%) Ross (8%)
Clinton Dole Perot
Clinton wins: Rhode Island, New Mexico, Minnesota, Wisconsin, New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, West Virginia, Florida, Ohio, Illinois, New Jersey, Connecticut, Maine, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, Washington DC
Dole wins: Oklahoma, Kansas, Indiana, Alabama, Texas, Nebraska, Wyoming, North CarolinaReuse content