A long, cold, rain drenched grind of exquisite torture

Election Night
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The Independent US

The anxious party worker at Democrat headquarters in Al Gore's home town of Carthage, Tennessee didn't know it at the time, but after the biggest roller coaster of an election night America has ever witnessed, she had it right.

The anxious party worker at Democrat headquarters in Al Gore's home town of Carthage, Tennessee didn't know it at the time, but after the biggest roller coaster of an election night America has ever witnessed, she had it right.

"Poor Al, I worry for him," she said on Tuesday afternoon, an hour after she had watched him vote at a local elementary school. "This is going to be one hell of a close thing. What Al needs is his own Mayor Daley, who fixed Chicago for JFK against Nixon back in 1960." If only the Vice-President had such a friend in high places in Miami to deliver an extra 2,000 Democrat votes, he would have won the election by now.

Instead, both he and his Republican rival, George W Bush, are being put through an extraordinary period of purgatory. Election night for both them was a long, cold, rain-drenched grind of exquisite psychological torture, of raised expectations and dashed hopes and - in an echo of one of their many petty spats on the campaign trail - a hefty dose of fuzzy maths.

Everything started promisingly for Mr Gore, holed up in a hotel in downtown Nashville, and dismally for the Bush faithful arrayed in the Texas capital of Austin. When the networks gave Florida to the Democrats, at around 7pm in both cities, ripples of joy ran through the crowds in Nashville's Legislative Plaza. Mr Gore and his running mate, Senator Joe Lieberman, heard the news while sitting down for a bite to eat and let out a cheer - premature as it turned out.

In Austin, a stream of revellers heading towards the giant stage beneath the state Capitol stopped to stare at a bank of televisions next to an election souvenir stand (Bush teddy bears, $10 apiece). They saw Michigan, Illinois and Pennsylvania go to their enemy and, instead of proceeding to the party, turned right around again. At the bar of the nearby Driskill Hotel, dolled-up Bush supporters booed at the widescreen television screen and hastily downed dozens of shots of tequila.

"If Gore and Hillary both win, I'm leaving the country!" said a disgusted William Jewel. Hillary Clinton, the First Lady, duly won her New York Senate seat and the drinkers brayed in indignation. "I hate her!" comes a scream from the crowd. On CNN, the Bush family, sitting in the Governor's Mansion, look devastated.

Within an hour, however, the picture began to change. First West Virginia, normally rock-solid Democrat territory, began to teeter and then Tennessee itself followed suit. By the time the stomach-churning news came that Florida was, after all, still in play, the mood in Nashville had swung from exultation to grim disbelief. In Legislative Plaza, entertainers like gospel singer BeBe Winans and country-western music stars Sawyer Brown, Kathy Mattea tried to get the 7,000 crowd going, but nobody was daring to celebrate.

"I can't believe we're going to lose," one supporter said. Mr Gore's spokesman Doug Hattaway, said he was still confident - but he didn't look it.

Over in Austin, the Florida seesaw provoked a deafening chorus of cheers, even in the thin crowd milling about at the "victory" rally that was still far from even the expectation of victory. "Kiss my ass! This is a great day for America!" exulted Quincy Davidson, a fourth-year student at the University of Texas. Everything was possible again, and Bush victories in Tennessee and Arkansas, Bill Clinton's home state, jolted the despondent back into party mood. "It's like a football game," said Jennifer Brockwell, who had travelled to Austin from Houston in anticipation of a thrilling night - but perhaps not one quite this thrilling. "You're rootin' for your team. When they're down you think they'll never catch up. And when they do it's just the sweetest feeling." As the night progressed, the high emotions dampened as both cities became cold and rainy. A Texas downpour around midnight seemed strangely apocalyptic.

The rally outside the Capitol turned into a sea of ponchos and umbrellas, and a river of water flushed away the detritus of a long evening's snacks and cold drinks over the feet of the faithful. Everyone was shivering. To keep up their spirits, the crowd began a low chant: "Florida! Florida! Florida and margaritas!" They kept their eyes peeled on the video screen, cheering every time CNN switched to Austin to scan the expectant crowd.

A few moments later, George P Bush, nephew of the candidate, came out on the stage and encouraged the crowd to keep chanting. "We want Florida!" they shouted together. And then: "We want W!" On the sound system, in keeping with Mr Bush's Latino-lite approach to ethnic inclusivity, Ricky Martin struck up the familiar chorus of "Livin' La Vida Loca".

Another hour went by, and still no news. While Nashville waited, in Austin a 33-member tie-dyed white gospel choir from South Austin took to the stage. They began singing about time ticking away and the joy of working for Jesus. The crowd, now swelling, was utterly unimpressed.

Then, at 1.15, the next bombshell. CNN declared George Bush the next president of the United States. In Nashville, disbelief. Many people were weeping. In Austin, the crowd went wild, everyone jumping, clapping, hugging their neighbours and raising three fingers in a "W" sign. A montage of images from the campaign, including jovial out-takes, flashed up on the screen to the musical accompaniment of "Signed, Sealed and Delivered". "We want Bush!" the crowd chanted. But there was no sign of the putative President-Elect.

Where was he? Where was Mr Gore? Unknown to the crowds, the gap in Florida was closing so fast that the Vice- President was thinking twice about delivering a concession speech. One Democratic Party worker said: "We're just hoping and praying he can do it, by the skin of his teeth." When it emerged Mr Gore had put in a second phone call to Mr Bush, withdrawing his congratulations and insisting the race was still too close to call, the faithful felt so confused they no longer knew what to think.

In Nashville, recriminations began about Mr Gore's election strategy: even if he was destined to prevail in the end - and nobody had a good grip on the likelihood of that - they wanted to know why Mr Clinton had not been used more, why West Virginia was ignored, why attention on Ohio was withdrawn so early when it turned out it could have been within the Democrats' reach. Above all, the crowd wanted to know, how on earth did Mr Gore lose his home state? In Austin, Mr Bush was reported to have called Mr Gore's retraction "unbelievable". "We have lived a lifetime tonight. We've been to hell and back," the Republican media adviser Mark McKinnon said.

The night crept ever forward, and it became clear no quick answers about Florida were going to be forthcoming. William Daley, Mr Gore's campaign manager, made a brief statement to the Nashville crowd saying the race was still on. A little later, Mr Bush's campaign manager Don Evans appeared in Austin.

"We hope and believe we have selected the next president of the United States," he said, urging patience in the few hundred would-be revellers still left to listen to him. "We are confident when all is said and done we will prevail." The parties were over. In fact, they never started. Both Mr Bush and Mr Gore, who had been up for more than 50 hours straight, chose to go to bed. They could sleep a little, but there was to be no rest for either of them for the foreseeable future.

Each, perhaps, had hoped to see headlines trumpeted in the morning papers, declaring one or the other to be the winner. Instead, as the front page of the Austin American-Statesman deftly put it: "History on hold."