Bush scores historic win as 'gracious' Kerry concedes

President sounds conciliatory note at victory rally by telling those who opposed him: 'We have one country, one constitution and one future that binds us'
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With a mandate of full legitimacy at last, George Bush told the world yesterday he would continue to wage an unrelenting war on terror, and pledged to his own people - including supporters of John Kerry - that he would do his utmost to bring a divided nation together.

With a mandate of full legitimacy at last, George Bush told the world yesterday he would continue to wage an unrelenting war on terror, and pledged to his own people - including supporters of John Kerry - that he would do his utmost to bring a divided nation together.

Mr Bush now embarks on a second term at the helm of the world's lone superpower, leading a polarised country, yet one under more complete Republican Party control than at any time in its recent history.

Interrupted by cheers and chants of "four more years", the President told a victory rally here that he had "a duty to serve all Americans". The tasks ahead required the broad support of every citizen. "We have one country, one constitution and one future that binds us," he said, specifically addressing his words to "everyone who voted for my opponent".

Earlier, at 11.02am (4.02pm GMT), his Democratic challenger, John Kerry, bowed to the inevitable and called the President at the White House to concede the election. The call between victor and vanquished, which lasted "three-to-four" minutes, was a polite and cordial ending to perhaps the most polarising campaign in modern US history.

According to Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, the President told his advisers after putting down the phone, that his opponent had been "very gracious". Then Mr Bush embraced his chief of staff, Andy Card. After an anxious 15 hours, a second term was sure.

Next, Mr Kerry went before his disappointed supporters in Boston's historic Faneuil Hall. His voice hoarse, his face showing a rare emotion after what may well be his own last campaign as well, the Massachusetts senator congratulated the President. He insisted, however, that his campaign themes would not die.

There was "a desperate need for unity and common ground," in America. "Today, I hope we can begin the healing," Mr Kerry said, in what amounted to a public plea to Mr Bush to move towards the middle ground. "America needs unity and a larger measure of compassion."

For all his promises to mend fences, the victory has placed Mr Bush in the most commanding position of his presidency. Not since his father in 1988 has a US president won an outright majority. He achieved 51 per cent of the total popular vote, and an unprecedented 58.7 million individual votes, the most achieved by a US presidential candidate. But, unlike his father, he won a second and final term.

Financial markets rose after his victory, largely from relief that there would be no repeat of the unsettling confusion of Florida four years ago. But the gains also reflected the hope that, having secured victory by appealing to his base, he will now reach out to the country as a whole. For its part, the world awaits Mr Bush's next moves with a mixture of caution, apprehension and not a little scepticism. The first test of whether the election has given birth to a new Bush will come at an Asian summit later this month. But many critics fear that, if anything, this President may be even more convinced of the rightness of America's cause.

On the campaign trail and in his debates with Mr Kerry, he famously refused to admit the slightest mistake - and won the backing of a majority of his countrymen for his pains. For them, Mr Bush is the man best equipped to keep them safe, and protect traditional values.

Moreover, the governing system which he heads will be more solidly Republican than before. Mr Bush's party consolidated its monopoly of the executive and legislative branches, by making significant further gains in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The Democrats retain the 41 Senate seats needed to mount a filibuster against measures they particularly dislike. But, after the stunning defeat of their skilled and experienced minority leader, Tom Daschle, they will find it harder than ever to withstand Republican pressure. The party faces a short-term leadership crisis and a long-term crisis of identity.

The all-night election battle began with early exit polls that brought giddy hope to the Kerry camp, and genuine fear at the White House that Mr Bush might yet lose.

But those moods were reversed as the first real returns came in - proof again that in the US, after the fiasco of Florida 2000, exit polls are the most unreliable of tools. One moment Kerry supporters believed their man was the 44th President of the United States in waiting. Six short hours later, defeat stared them in the face.

As expected, all hinged on a few swing states, above all the trio of Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio. The first went to Mr Bush and the second to Mr Kerry, meaning that the victor in Ohio would win it all. Mr Bush had won the state in 2000. This time he would do so again - yet only after a nail-biting contest, which saw the President with a tiny 51/49 per cent lead, but with tens of thousands of so-called "provisional ballots" still to be counted. But after long consultations with his advisers, Mr Kerry concluded there was no way Ohio and its pivotal 20 electoral college votes could be won.

Overnight, as the battle for Ohio seemed deadlocked, Mr Kerry contemplated resistance, sending out his running mate John Edwards in the early hours to say the campaign would fight to have every vote counted. "We've waited four years, we can wait one more night."

But early yesterday, further resistance was clearly futile. The Ohio arithmetic was bleak. Trailing by 140,000 votes, the utterly overwhelming win among the provisional ballots yet to be counted was plainly out of reach. Nor, the Kerry team realised, did the country have the stomach for a protracted legal wrangle like Florida in 2000.

Simultaneously, Republican pressure mounted on the challenger to give in, and follow the example of Richard Nixon who, in 1960, conceded to John Kennedy to spare the country a long legal battle, despite clear evidence of Democratic mischief in Chicago and Texas.

In the end, Mr Kerry did. "There won't be enough outstanding votes for us to win Ohio, and therefore we cannot win this election," he told his supporters, the loudness of their cheers hiding the depth of their despondency. With the results in from all but two states, Mr Bush had amassed 274 electoral college votes, four more than the 270 needed to win. Mr Kerry had 252, with the chance of climbing to 264 if he could carry Iowa and New Mexico, both of which went for Al Gore in 2000, but where the counts were not complete early yesterday afternoon.

The real questions last night, however, were about future government, not past campaigns. Could a re-elected Bush reach out to unite a country which, despite his unarguable 51 per cent majority of the popular vote, is more polarised than ever? Mr Bush is loved and loathed in equal measure. The intensity of passions was evidenced by a turnout of 58 per cent, the highest since the 1960s.

Early yesterday there was scant sign of conciliation, as Mr Card and other Republican chieftains urged Mr Kerry to throw in the towel - the same party leaders who four years ago fought a Florida recount all the way to the Supreme Court to thwart Al Gore, even though their then opponent had clearly won the national popular vote.

In his victory statement yesterday - two hours after Mr Kerry had publicly conceded defeat at Faneuil Hall - Mr Bush extended an olive branch. But he promised much the same as in 2000. What ensued was the most ideologically conservative presidency in recent times. This time, his margin in Florida alone has leapt to 365,000, and his mandate is clear. In short, deeds, not words, will be the proof of the President's intentions.