Electrifying finish as Gore takes key states in White House dash

Vice-President wins in Florida and Midwest
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The Independent US

The most exciting US presidential election for decades was on a knife-edge last night, with the Democrat, Al Gore, edging ahead of the Republican, George W Bush, in early returns. In the key battleground states of Florida and Michigan the Vice-President was triumphant, according to exit polls. In contrast, Mr Bush was struggling in states such as Virginia and North Carolina, which he was expected to take.

The most exciting US presidential election for decades was on a knife-edge last night, with the Democrat, Al Gore, edging ahead of the Republican, George W Bush, in early returns. In the key battleground states of Florida and Michigan the Vice-President was triumphant, according to exit polls. In contrast, Mr Bush was struggling in states such as Virginia and North Carolina, which he was expected to take.

Nationally, turn-out was unexpectedly high. But in the marginal Midwestern state of Missouri, so many people wanted to vote in the city of St Louis that polling stations were kept open late.

For Mr Gore, the unexpectedly good news was that Georgia, which had been confidently forecast for Mr Bush, was too close for the exit polls to call, suggesting a high black - and so Democratic - turn-out. Exit polls from the main television networks said that Florida's crucial 25 electoral votes and Michigan's 18 votes had gone to Mr Gore. In early-reporting "safe" states, the surprises were few. Elsewhere, interim exit polls leaked before the polls closed showed the two candidates running neck and neck, holding out the prospect of the longest and most expensive US election on record also being one of the closest.

The tightest election of recent decades was Kennedy's victory over Nixon in 1960 - when, as both sides reminded their audiences this time, Kennedy won by an average of just one vote per precinct.

Contests were even at every level, with many of the congressional races that were expected to be close proving to be even closer. One early bright spot for the Democrats was that the first lady, Hillary Clinton, looked set to win the New York Senate seat comfortably.

Elsewhere, however, there was evident concern in the Gore camp. Mid-afternoon, the party dispatched its two most fiery campaigners to two close-running states to get out the Gore vote. Senator Edward Kennedy from Massachusetts rushed north to New Hampshire, while the civil rights campaigner Jesse Jackson flew to Pennsylvania, which Mr Gore hoped he had clinched last weekend.

Earliest indications had shown momentum gathering behind Mr Gore for the first time in weeks. The last two Reuters/MSNBC polls had him edging ahead of Mr Bush, continuing the slight upward trend of the past week. A bigger than expected early turn-out also seemed to favour the Democrats in races where turn-out was judged to be vital.

Flying in to his home state, Tennessee, yesterday morning after a 30-hour, five-state marathon that culminated with a star-studded rally in Miami Beach, the Vice-President looked relaxed as he voted in the small town of Carthage. A Gore staff-member said: "We're all on pins and needles. But we are also confident. We are the ones with momentum." On Sunday Mr Gore had felt optimistic enough to forecast victory seriously for the first time in a chequered and often uncertain campaign.

Mr Bush, who had returned to a hero's homecoming in Texas the previous evening, admitted to a fitful night's sleep and professed himself "excited" as the vote progressed. His uncharacteristically tired demeanour and some tell-tale past-tense phrasing, however, suggested that he was not counting on victory.

The two running mates voted in their home states - Joe Lieberman in Connecticut and Dick Cheney in Wyoming - before flying to join the candidates to await the results.

Remarking nostalgically that this was the first time for 30 years that his name had not been on any ballot, President Bill Clinton accompanied his wife, Hillary, to vote near their house at Chappaqua in New York. Mr Clinton dismissed suggestions that he would become a "lame duck" the moment his successor was elected, quipping: "Some people thought I was a lame duck in '95, so I just keep quacking and I've got another 10 weeks to quack." His successor will be inaugurated on 20 January.

The differences in personal character and policy between the two candidates offered America's voters an especially stark choice this year, between experience and charm, between traditional left and moderate right, and their decision will set the course of the United States into the first decade of the new century.

The outcomes of the other races were as uncertain as that of the contest for the White House. Democrats needed to gain only five seats to take charge of the Senate; only seven seats to regain control of the House of Representatives. And the expected retirement of up to four Supreme Court justices in the next president's term placed the highest court in the land in the scales also.

Even if the early momentum was with Mr Gore, there was no guarantee as the night went on that the Republicans would not spring a surprise. The Bush campaign had been upbeat about its chances in California, and the appeal of the Green candidate, Ralph Nader, was a wild card that left much in play until late in the night.

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