Gore boosted by late poll swing

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The Independent US

After the longest and most expensive presidential campaign on record, Americans finally went to the polls yesterday to elect their next President in the closest race for 40 years. With the last opinion polls deadlocked, the Democrat, Vice-President Al Gore, and the Republican Governor of Texas, George W Bush, sat tight in their home states, claiming confidence in victory while braced for defeat.

After the longest and most expensive presidential campaign on record, Americans finally went to the polls yesterday to elect their next President in the closest race for 40 years. With the last opinion polls deadlocked, the Democrat, Vice-President Al Gore, and the Republican Governor of Texas, George W Bush, sat tight in their home states, claiming confidence in victory while braced for defeat.

Early indications, though, showed momentum gathering behind Mr Gore for the first time in weeks. The last two Reuters/MSNBC polls had him inching 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 Vice-President in a race where turn-out was judged to be vital.

Flying to Tennessee after a 30-hour, five-state marathon that had culminated with a star-studded rally in Miami Beach and a dawn meeting with voters in Tampa, Mr Gore was in ebullient form. He voted mid-morning at a school in the small town of Carthage, down the road from his family's farm, and took time to talk to pupils about what they wanted the next President to do.

A member of Mr Gore's staff admitted: "We're all on pins and needles. But we are also confident. We are the ones with momentum." Not until Sunday had the Vice-President felt optimistic enough to forecast victory openly and seriously for the first time in a chequered and often uncertain campaign.

Mr Bush, who had returned to a hero's homecoming in Texas on Monday 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 victory would be a long shot. Early exit polls indicated that, as expected, he had taken Indiana and Kentucky. But asked how his wife, Laura, felt, he replied: "She feels like I do ... very relaxed, she knows that we gave it our best, and that's all we can do."

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.

President Bill Clinton, remarking nostalgically that this was the first time for three decades his name had not been on any ballot, accompanied his wife, Hillary, to vote near their house at Chappaqua in New York. Early indications were that Mrs Clinton was on course for a stunning victory in her quest for the state's vacant Senate seat - and a place in US history as the first First Lady to win nationally elected office.

Chatting to reporters, 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." Mr Clinton leaves office on 20 January.

Mr Clinton kept a low profile during the campaign, at Mr Gore's request. But he still cast a large shadow, his transgressions in office and his legacy of economic success never far from either candidate's mind.

The differences in character and policy between the two candidates offered voters an especially stark choice this year: a choice between experience and charm, between traditional left and moderate right, that will set the course of the nation into the first decade of the new century.

But not only the presidency hung in the balance last night. Almost uniquely, every electable institution of state was in contention. Democrats needed to gain only five seats to take control of the Senate; only seven seats to take back control of the House of Representatives that they lost in 1994. 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 as well.

Even if the early momentum was with Mr Gore, there was no guarantee 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 Party candidate, Ralph Nader, was a wild card.

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