Polls open across America in poll which could prove closest ever

A late opinion poll shows Gore edging ahead after weeks spent trailing
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The Independent US

Americans are now voting in what could be the closest election in 40 years, choosing between Republican George W. Bush's promise to be a "uniter not a divider" and Democrat Al Gore's claim that he alone has the experience to "fight for you and win." Voters also were choosing a new Congress.

Americans are now voting in what could be the closest election in 40 years, choosing between Republican George W. Bush's promise to be a "uniter not a divider" and Democrat Al Gore's claim that he alone has the experience to "fight for you and win." Voters also were choosing a new Congress.

A last-minute opinion poll has shown Gore edging into the lead, possibly because of the "Nader Effect" where the Green candidate's supporters are switching allegiance after realising their votes could cost the Democrats the election.

Exhausted by the effort, the candidates - Bush, the governor of Texas and son of a president, and Gore, the vice president, for eight years a presidential understudy - surrendered their fate to the voters and made ready to join millions of their fellow citizens at the polls.

Bush was casting his ballot in Austin, Texas, and making calls to West Coast radio stations to urge voters to turn out. He also was calling voters in Michigan, Oregon, Florida, Iowa and Wisconsin

After some pre-dawn campaigning in Florida, Gore was voting in Carthage, Tennessee.

The earliest results came in moments after midnight Tuesday from two New Hampshire towns. In Dixville Notch, the result was Bush, 21, Gore 5, Ralph Nader 1. In nearby Hart's Location, it was Bush 17, and Gore 13, with one vote for a write-in candidate.

"It's not close here, but I believe it will be close in New Hampshire and across the country," said Stephen Barba, a Dixville Notch voter.

Before that Election Day ritual, the candidates barnstormed the country one last time.

Bush hit four states - Tennessee, Wisconsin, Iowa and Arkansas - that voted for Bill Clinton and Gore in 1992 and 1996, but which polls suggest could go Republican.

"If people do what I think they're going to do you're looking at the next president of the United States," the Texas governor told an audience of several hundred supporters after returning to Austin just after midnight.

For his part, Gore engaged in marathon campaigning through crucial Iowa, Missouri, Michigan and Florida, where he said the crowd of tens of thousands who greeted him in Miami's fashionable South Beach left him with "no doubt whatsoever" he'd finish the day as president-elect.

"Americans are coming together and making a very powerful decision that we are not going to allow ourselves to go back to the policies of the past," Gore told the crowd. "We're going forward with the policies of the future - a bright future that includes all Americans."

A cast of stars - Glenn Close, Robert DeNiro, Stevie Wonder, Billy Dee Williams, Ben Affleck - were also on hand.

From Miami, Gore headed to a decidedly more somber event, holding a pre-dawn meeting with nurses at a Tampa cancer center, where Gore sat around a table and talked health care.

Gore also was rallying workers on their way to "get out the vote" before heading home to cast his own vote at a small school in Carthage.

Behind Gore and Bush was the most expensive election in history - dlrs 3 billion on presidential and congressional races, about dlrs 30 for every vote cast - but one that failed to stir much excitement.

Clinton predicted that Gore will emerge victorious on the strength of the economy and a hoped-for large turnout among blacks, Latinos, immigrants and the working poor.

"He's run a good campaign on his own ...," Clinton said, just before taking off from Washington bound for his new home in Chappaqua, New York, where he planned to vote. "Especially the last couple of weeks, I think he's really been in gear and you also see a lot of our people getting energized. I think he'll win."

In addition to replacing Clinton, the people were deciding control of the House of Representatives and Senate, both narrowly held by Republicans.

Voters were picking all 435 members of the House, 34 senators and 11 governors and members of state legislatures. They also were settling 204 ballot issues in 42 states, ranging from legalizing marijuana in Alaska to fluoridating the water in San Antonio, Texas.

Despite millions of automated phone calls and waves of television advertising, analysts predicted that fewer than half the adult population would vote, about the same as the 96 million who cast ballots in 1996.

With peace and prosperity both at hand and not big issues, the fight was chiefly over how to divide the spoils of prosperity: in the big tax cuts the Texas governor proposes or in shoring up federal pensions, health care and education, as the vice president favors.

Bush portrayed himself as more trustworthy and capable of ending bickering in Washington - "a uniter." Gore said his two decades in government give him the experience to prevail in taking on the special interests.

"You need someone who will fight for you and win and has the experience to do so," he argued.

Bush led in most national polls and enjoyed a potentially decisive enthusiasm edge among likely voters. But Gore held fragile leads in many of the swing states that may decide the election.

The presidency is decided by electoral votes, not the popular vote, with each state allotted electors equal to its number of House members, determined by population, and Senators, two for each state.

Winning a state, even by a small margin, entitles a candidate to all of that state's electoral votes, making it possible for the winner to have fewer votes nationwide than the loser. It takes a majority, or 270 of 538 electoral votes, to win the presidency.

An unusually large number of states were in the tossup camp - Florida, New Hampshire, West Virginia, Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin and New Mexico among them. Even Gore's Tennessee and Clinton's Arkansas were close calls.

Bush was safe in Texas, where he has been a popular two-term governor, and had a lock on most of the South.

Gore's task was complicated by "Clinton fatigue" - a weariness of the sex scandal that led to an impeachment ordeal - and by the base-eroding threat posed by the insurgent Nader, who argued both major parties are captives of the same corporate money.

Nader expressed confidence that he would get at least 5 percent of the total vote, which would ensure his party millions of dollars in federal campaign money for the 2004 elections.

Nader encouraged supporters to "vote entirely their conscience," dismissing as "foolish talk" the complaints of Democrats that a vote for him would be wasted or worse might throw the election to Bush.

The election's apparent closeness raised the remote possibility of a Bush victory in the popular vote but a Gore edge where it counts in the Electoral College. Such outcomes have occurred three times in U.S. history, most recently in 1888.

The battle for Congress after six years of Republican dominance was just as murky.

Democrats hoped to regain control of the Senate, where the Republicans hold sway, 54-46, and the House, where Republicans hold a 222-209 majority, with two independents and two vacancies.

And a Senate tie was possible, with the new vice president - either Republican Dick Cheney or Democrat Joseph Lieberman - casting the vote to decide which party controls. Or Sen. Lieberman, still on Connecticut's ballot for re-election, could win the vice presidency, forcing him to resign from the Senate and possibly throw the chamber to the Republicans.

For the first time in history, a president's wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, sought election to the Senate. She faced Republican Rep. Rick Lazio in New York, nominated when prostate cancer caused New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to abandon plans to run.

In Missouri, Senate Democratic candidate Mel Carnahan remained on the ballot despite the Oct. 16 plane crash that killed him. Carnahan's successor as governor, Roger Wilson, promised to appoint Carnahan's widow to the seat if Republican incumbent John Ashcroft loses.

In five states, women were major-party candidates for governor, including Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, battling her Republican opponent while also battling breast cancer.

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