America holds its breath

Latest: Counting in Florida suspended 10pm GMT; result expected 10pm GMT Thursday
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The Independent US

The world's self-appointed model democracy was on tenterhooks yesterday as the closest presidential election on record left the country without a President-elect more than 24 hours after the polls closed. All eyes were on Florida, where the authorities had ordered a state-wide recount with a bare 1,200 votes separating the two leading candidates and postal votes still to count.

The world's self-appointed model democracy was on tenterhooks yesterday as the closest presidential election on record left the country without a President-elect more than 24 hours after the polls closed. All eyes were on Florida, where the authorities had ordered a state-wide recount with a bare 1,200 votes separating the two leading candidates and postal votes still to count.

The Republican contender, George W Bush, said in a short statement that if the recount confirmed the initial result, "as we expect it to, then we have won the election". He called on the nation to unite behind the next President.

An hour later, in a similarly brief statement, Vice-President Al Gore said that he respected the electoral college system and would accept its verdict. But the Democratic Party was less sanguine. Jenny Backus, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee, hinted at legal action, citing allegations of widespread irregularities in the Florida vote, including suspect ballot forms and missing ballot boxes.

Mr Bush and Mr Gore sent personal representatives, both of them former US secretaries of state, to observe the recount: James Baker for the Republican candidate and Warren Christopher for his rival.

While America took the news of the hung election calmly, Florida swirled with rumours of local irregularities. Jesse Jackson, the civil rights leader and former presidential hopeful, raised doubts about the integrity of the vote and set off for Florida to investigate. "Something about this count does not pass the smell test," he said, adding that some immigrant voters had reported intimidation.

Mr Bush's younger brother, Jebb, the Governor of Florida, sped home from Texas, where he had spent election night with the family. He had undertaken to "deliver" his state for his brother, and was upset at initial figures suggesting that he had failed.

The recount instruction in Florida came at the end of a tumultuous night in which first Mr Gore and then Mr Bush seemed set fair for victor. Shortly after 2am, the US television networks gave the presidency to Mr Bush, only to reverse the announcement 90 minutes later, as the count in Florida tightened.

Mr Gore, waiting with friends and family in Tennessee, his home state, called Mr Bush to concede defeat. Just minutes later he was on his way to give his concession speech to grieving crowds in the centre of Nashville, when he learnt by phone that the count in Florida might not be conclusive. Two blocks from his destination, he reversed his motorcade, and called Mr Bush again to say he was staying in the race.

Instead of Mr Gore, it was his campaign chairman, Bill Daley, who stood before the crowd in Nashville to give the astounding news. "I've been in politics for a long time," he said. "But there's never been a night like this one. Just an hour or so ago, the television networks called this race for Governor Bush. It now appears that their call was premature." With 25 electoral college votes, the state of Florida would push Mr Bush above the 270 electoral college votes needed to win, but only by the slimmest of margins. A battleground throughout the campaign, Florida was the quintessential marginal state, where one small shift could give either candidate victory. Usually one of the earliest states to report on election night, this time it was one of the last.

Across the country, fewer than 77,000 votes separated the two candidates, a tiny fraction of the more than 100 million votes cast, making this election even closer than the one 40 years ago in which John F Kennedy prevailed over Richard Nixon. So tiny were the margins that the system of exit polling - usually highly accurate - broke down. As election night wore on, state after state was classified as "too close to call" on exit polls alone. The votes had to be physically counted.

As America awoke to find itself still without a President-elect, the first recriminations could be heard. The chairman of the Democratic Party, Ed Rendell, said the Democrats had paid insufficient attention to important states and criticised the decision to keep President Bill Clinton off the campaign trail for so long. There were harsh words, too, for Ralph Nader and his Green Party. Although Mr Nader took only 3 per cent of the popular vote - well below the 5 per cent he had sought - it was sufficient to deprive Mr Gore of a clear victory in states where the race was close-run.

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