US election heads for photo-finish

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The Independent US

The closest US presidential election for 40 years sped to a photo-finish yesterday, with the two candidates blitzing the marginal states on which the contest now depends. As Al Gore and George W Bush each claimed hoarsely that victory was his, latest polls showed them closer than ever.

The closest US presidential election for 40 years sped to a photo-finish yesterday, with the two candidates blitzing the marginal states on which the contest now depends. As Al Gore and George W Bush each claimed hoarsely that victory was his, latest polls showed them closer than ever.

The slight edge enjoyed by Mr Bush for the Republicans through last week was reduced by a fraction, and at least one poll - for Newsweek magazine - had him tied with Mr Gore at 43 per cent. The effect, if any, of the "November surprise" - Mr Bush's drink-driving conviction - had yet to feed into the polls and will not show up until today, but the Bush camp was confident the Republican's chances were unimpaired.

With as many as 15 states classified as "toss-ups", almost one-third of the electoral college votes that will decide the election are still in contention - a vast sea of uncertainty in an election that was once seen as the Vice-President's to lose.

There were signs, too, that the excitement - hitherto confined to the pundits - might at last be filtering down to the voters. Several state party organisations forecast that turn-out could be higher, perhaps much higher, than expected, adding a further imponderable to the closest of close races. It had been widely assumed that the lacklustre, even boring, nature of the main candidates could presage a record low turn-out this year.

In the hours that remain, getting out the vote is the imperative. Mr Gore, sounding more confident than for weeks, did the rounds of black churches in Philadelphia, seeking to galvanise a key section of the Democratic vote in a key marginal state, before flying to Michigan and Missouri where he is also locked in a dead heat.

Mr Bush, meanwhile, sped around the periphery of Florida, drawing huge and ebullient crowds as he sought to snatch from Mr Gore the state that would almost guarantee him the White House. In his first national effort on his brother's behalf, Jeb Bush, Governor of Florida, blanketed the Sunday television talkshows, lauding his brother and talking down the drink-driving revelation as an episode long in the past when George "was another person".

Still relegated to the sidelines of his Vice-President's campaign, Bill Clinton urged Americans in his weekly radio message to exercise their "fundamental American freedom" to vote tomorrow and plugged his deputy's credentials. In marginal states and constituencies, the get-out-the-vote drive was in full swing. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers delivered campaign literature, knocked on doors and manned phone banks, striving - at the breathless climax of an 18-month campaign - to give their man the best chance of victory tomorrow.

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