Florida victory boosts Bush as Kerry's hopes rest on Ohio

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The Independent US

George Bush seemed to be gaining the upper hand early today in his nerve-wracking battle for the presidency with John Kerry, but the outcome still hinged on a handful of swing states, including the critical battleground of Ohio.

George Bush seemed to be gaining the upper hand early today in his nerve-wracking battle for the presidency with John Kerry, but the outcome still hinged on a handful of swing states, including the critical battleground of Ohio.

With the polls closed in almost every state, the President had swept the South, the Plains and Rocky Mountain states plus traditional Republican strongholds like Indiana and Kentucky, on the basis of actual returns and network projections. Television networks predicted Mr Bush would take the vital prize of Florida, and he held a slender lead in Ohio, the last key remaining swing state, with more than 60 per cent of precincts reporting.

Mr Kerry carried New York, Pennsylvania, and the entire North-east, as well as Illinois and California and Washington state on the west coast. At 5am GMT, the President led the Massachusetts senator by 238 to 206 votes in the electoral college, where 270 are needed to win.

Remarkably, almost five hours after the first polls came in, no state had changed hands from four years ago, when Mr Bush pipped Al Gore to the White House thanks to his wafer-thin victory in Florida. The race hinged on the handful of states that have dominated the entire campaign ­ Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, and the upper mid-western quartet of Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan.

The emerging overall electoral map was uncannily similar to 2000, showing an America effectively split in two, politically, culturally and geographically. With the networks striving to avoid a repeat of the Florida fiasco, and delays in the counting of absentee votes, the outcome could yet be delayed until today.

The main difference from 2000 was in the turnout. With the country politically impassioned as rarely before, national turnout promised to be the highest since the 1960s. Some 120 million or 60 per cent of Americans were believed to have voted, compared to just 51 per cent in 2000.

Get-out-the-vote drives by both parties appeared to have been remarkably successful. Throughout yesterday, there were long queues at polling stations, especially in the dozen or so swing states likely to decide the outcome. In some precincts in Ohio and Pennsylvania, polling stations were kept open for up to 90 minutes beyond scheduled closing times to allow waiting voters to cast their ballots.

The early-evening mood among Republicans was subdued, as exit polls and final surveys seemed to show Mr Kerry performing well, especially in Florida and Ohio. But their spirits perked up as actual returns came in elsewhere, especially in Florida.

Speaking to reporters at the White House, where he watched the results come in, Mr Bush professed himself "very upbeat" about his prospects: "I believe I will win. It's going to be an exciting evening." For the most part, the electoral irregularities and polling-station confrontations that had been widely feared did not materialise.

In Philadelphia, in bitterly fought Pennsylvania, Republicans filed a complaint about alleged "planted" votes on several electronic voting machines in Democrat-leaning minority areas of the city. Otherwise, however, balloting generally went smoothly, with no serious trouble reported in either Florida or Ohio, where a federal appeals court reversed a lower ruling and allowed Republican observers to challenge thousands of suspect voters.

As election-eve polls indicating a near 50-50 split between the President and his Democratic challenger John Kerry, all eyes were on turnout. The larger the total of voters, most analysts believed, the better for Mr Kerry. "People aren't turning out to support an incumbent, they're voting for a new start," said a confident Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic Party chairman.

Afternoon exit-poll returns suggested Mr Kerry held very narrow leads in both Florida and Ohio, both carried by Mr Bush in 2000, and offering 47 electoral votes out of the 270 needed to win. A final Zogby estimate yesterday morning had the Massachusetts senator winning overall by 311 to 213 electoral college votes. Two swing states, Nevada and Colorado, were deemed too close to all.

But this year, such polling was being treated with special caution, after the 2000 débâcle in Florida when the networks used faulty exit polls to mistakenly give the state (and the election) to Al Gore, and were later forced to retract.

This year brought extra complications, with widespread absentee voting, and millions of people ­ possibly as many as 20 per cent of the total ­ who took advantage of early voting permitted by most states. All were beyond the reach of the pollsters stationed outside individual voting stations.

Yesterday, the first hard count came shortly after midnight from the hamlet of Dixville Notch in New Hampshire, close to the Canadian border, and favoured Mr Bush. But, omen or otherwise, the 26 voters in that remote corner of northern New England cut his margin of victory, from 21 to five in 2000, to a 19-7 win this time.

Leaving nothing to chance, both candidates continued on election day to chase the few undecided or less-committed voters. After voting at Crawford, close to his ranch in Texas, Mr Bush and First Lady Laura Bush headed to Columbus, Ohio, in a last bid to galvanise support in a state whose 20 electoral college votes may decide the result.

As the President's political advisers are only too aware, no Republican has ever won the White House without carrying Ohio ­ yet final state polls suggested that, if anything, Mr Kerry had opened a narrow lead. The state was too close to call when polls closed there at 12.30am GMT. Mr Bush, his last efforts spent, seemed relaxed, confident and almost philosophical. "This election is in the best of hands, the people's hands," he said as he visited a Republican office in Columbus.

Of Mr Kerry, the President remarked: "I wish him all the best. He and I are in the exact same position, and I'm sure he's happy, like I am, that the campaign is over. We both campaigned as hard as we possibly could." The tone of his words stood in stark contrast with the campaign, which has seen the candidates and their surrogates exchanging bitter, often personal attacks ­ of which the nastiest, beyond doubt, were ads by pro-Bush veterans questioning Mr Kerry's valour in Vietnam.

His last campaign-trail appearance done, Mr Bush returned to Washington. "My hope is that this election ends tonight," he said, echoing the near-universal wish of his countrymen, Democrats and Republicans alike, that the vote produces a quick and clear-cut result, and no re-run ­ in Florida, Ohio, or anywhere else ­ of the mess in 2000.

Nonetheless, if the count is really close, controversial "provisional ballots" cast by people who say they have been wrongly left off electoral rolls, could be crucial. Those votes are only certified and tallied after election day itself.

After Teresa Heinz Kerry voted in Pittsburgh, Mr Kerry and his wife went back to Boston to cast his own ballot. Last night, the challenger was awaiting the result in his Boston townhouse, after giving a series of interviews to local TV stations in states across the country where the polls were still open.

"I'm confident we have made the case for change and a new direction for America," Mr Kerry said, after voting with his daughters Vanessa and Alexandra. The candidate seemed calm and confident, but already wistful and nostalgic for the campaign that at last was over. "It is really important that people go out and vote," he declared. "Our country will be strong and united no matter what happens."

In addition to the "Big Three" swing states of Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio, the upper mid-western trio of Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin were also playing a pivotal role, as well as New Hampshire, New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado. But one model suggested that everything could come down to tiny Hawaii, last but one of the states to report and where, quite unexpectedly, Mr Kerry and Mr Bush were in a neck-and-neck finish.

In addition to choosing their next president, Americans were also voting for all 435 members of the House of Representatives and 34 of the 100 Senators. Republicans were virtually certain to strengthen their grip on the House. They also retained control of the Senate.

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