Gore surges but Bush is defiant

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The Independent US

Vice-President Al Gore seemed on his way to becoming the 43rd President of the United States last night by a whisker, after one of the closest elections in American history. A vindication of his long years of political grooming - and the two-term presidency of Bill Clinton - a victory for Gore will show America plumping for continuity over change, but only by the narrowest of margins.

Vice-President Al Gore seemed on his way to becoming the 43rd President of the United States last night by a whisker, after one of the closest elections in American history. A vindication of his long years of political grooming - and the two-term presidency of Bill Clinton - a victory for Gore will show America plumping for continuity over change, but only by the narrowest of margins.

In New York, Hillary Clinton seemed set to make history by becoming the first wife of a serving President to be elected to public office. Polls put her on course to defeat her Republican opponent, Rick Lazio by a comfortable margin.

For all the retrospective certainty, it was an evening of high tension with a nail-biting finish, as one key battleground state after another proved too close to call on exit polls alone. Although early projections gave Mr Gore a narrow victory in Florida - where Mr Bush's brother Jeb is governor - and Pennseylvania, both results were challenged by the Bush camp which refused to concede defeat.

The Vice-President's one disappointment was the loss of his home state, Tennessee, which belatedly joined the rest of the South in its shift to the right. Mr Gore thus became the first serious presidential candidate since George McGovern to lose his home state. In a personal defeat for Mr Clinton, who forsook his home state for the first time to vote for his wife in New York, Arkansas went the same way.

Nationwide, turn-out was unexpectedly high. In St Louis in the marginal Midwestern state of Missouri, queues to vote were so long that polling stations were kept open for an extra hour. That turn-out was the first harbinger of Mr Gore's success. Unexpectedly close races in southern states, such as Georgia, Virginia and Alabama, all indicated a high rate of participation by black, mostly Democratic, voters.

Both parties knew that turn-out was all. As late as mid-afternoon, the Democrats dispatched their two most fiery campaigners to marginal states to get out the vote. Senator Edward Kennedy from Massachusetts rushed north to New Hampshire, while the civil rights campaigner, Jesse Jackson, flew to key state of Pennsylvania, which Mr Gore hoped he had clinched last weekend.

Mr Bush, as predicted, won across the South, but not by the sort of margins that foretold victory elsewhere. And shortly after claiming a swingeing victory in his home state of Texas, Mr Bush symbolically conceded defeat. Rather than stay in the hotel suite where he had planned to watch the returns, he retreated to the Governor's mansion.

The closeness of the presidential race was replicated in Congressional races, but there was no guarantee from early returns that the Democrats would capture even the few seats in the Senate and the House that would win them control. Senate seats in Florida, Delaware and Virginia changed hands, but the five Senate seats needed by the Democrats and the seven in the House appeared elusive.

Mr Gore spent the day in Tennessee, flying in yesterday morning after a 30-hour, five-state marathon that culminated with a star-studded rally in Miami Beach. He looked relaxed as he voted mid-morning in the small town of Carthage, taking time out to talk to schoolchildren about what they wanted the next President to do.

Eve of poll opinion polls had shown momentum gathering behind Mr Gore. The last two Reuters/MSNBC polls had him inching ahead of Mr Bush, continuing the slight upward trend of the past week.

A Gore staff-member told reporters said: "We're all on pins and needles. But we are also confident. We are the ones with momentum." It was only on Sunday, however, that Mr Gore had felt optimistic enough to forecast victory seriously for the first time after what had been 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 telltale past-tense phrasing, however, suggested that he was not counting on victory.

After accompanying his wife to vote in early morning, President Clinton remained in the background, recording phone and radio messages to boost Democrats' turnout in marginal states. At the polling station near the Clinton home in Chappaqua, New York, Mr Clinton remarked nostalgically that this was the first time for 30 years that his name had not been on any ballot.

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." His successor will be inaugurated on 20 January. Mr Clinton kept a low profile during the campaign, at the Gore campaign's request. But he still cast a large shadow over the election.

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