US holds its breath on Florida recount

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The Independent US

Election officials have begun a recount of nearly 6 million votes in Florida with the stunningly close presidential election between George W Bush and Al Gore in the balance.

Election officials have begun a recount of nearly 6 million votes in Florida with the stunningly close presidential election between George W Bush and Al Gore in the balance.

The race hung on Florida, where Bush led by just 1,700 votes. Because of an electoral system set by the US Constitution, the outcome in Florida determines the winner, even though Gore led by a slim margin in the nearly completed national count of more than 100 million votes.

The outcome - or lack of one - left the nation wondering who would succeed Bill Clinton on January 20 and raised the prospect that the question would be unanswered for days.

At one point Gore called Bush with congratulations, then called back to say he wasn't ready to concede. The recount could be complete by midnight GMT.

"Unbelievable," sighed Bush adviser Karen Hughes. "There's never been a night like this one," said Gore campaign chairman William Daley, after his boss retired for the night - unsure whether he had won or not.

At the last count, Bush led Gore in Florida by 1,655 votes in the unofficial Associated Press count with all precincts reporting but an unknown number of absentee ballots yet to be counted. The total vote in Florida was nearly 6 million.

In the popular vote, Gore and running mate Joe Lieberman, the first Jew to run for the vice presidency, had 48.3 percent (48,592,257) to 48 percent for Bush and former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney.

Bush has won 29 states for 246 electoral votes. Gore has won 18 states plus the District of Columbia for 260.

Green Party candidate Ralph Nader had 2,643,426 for 2.6 percent, short of the 5 percent required to give his party federal funding but enough in Florida to take away thousands of potential Gore voters.

Both the Bush and Gore campaigns sent teams of lawyers to the state to keep an eye on the recount. Daley said former Secretary of State Warren Christopher would oversee the recount for the Democrats.

Nationwide, the popular vote count was seesawing, with Gore overtaking Bush before sunrise.

Florida, with its 25 electoral votes, is the state that will decide the winner of this closely contested presidential election.

Several Florida counties still had absentee ballots yet to count, and elections officials expected several thousand votes from overseas. Election officials weren't sure how long it would take, but said overseas residents have 10 days for their ballots postmarked by Election Day to get to election officials.

The margin that would trigger the automatic recount with an election of just under 6 million votes, is slightly less than 30,000 votes.

After it appeared Bush had won Florida, Bush was declared the winner of the presidency by several of the networks, and his supporters began to celebrate. But the vote margin shrank steadily as late reports came in.

Gore called Bush to concede defeat in the early morning hours, and then called back to retract the concession. His campaign chairman, William Daley, later appeared before Gore supporters in Nashville, Tennessee, to say the Gore campaign would request a recount.

Neither candidate made a public statement in the astounding post-midnight election finale, but Bush campaign chairman Donald Evans said, "We hope and believe we have elected the next president of the United States."

Gore had called Bush to congratulate him and then gone to the war memorial in downtown Nashville, Tennessee, to make a concession speech.

Instead, campaign manager Daley appeared before the crowd and said the race was not over.

"Until the results in Florida become official our campaign continues," Daley said to cheering supporters.

In Austin, Texas, Bush spokesman Evans told a crowd waiting for a victory speech that Bush believed he had won Florida and the presidency.

"They're still counting, and I'm confident when it's all said and done, we will prevail," Evans said.

The national turnout was surprisingly brisk, with many encouraged to vote by the tight race. Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, estimated that 52 percent to 53 percent of Americans old enough to vote cast ballots - more than voted in 1996, but fewer than in 1992.

The southern state of Florida had been the epicenter of the campaign and Tuesday night was beyond chaotic, in what could be the closest presidential election since John F Kennedy defeated Richard M. Nixon in 1960.

At mid-evening, news organizations said Gore was the winner - which would have been a blow to Bush, whose brother Jeb is the governor. But then, media backtracked as more votes were counted and Bush eased ahead.

Major television networks declared Bush the election winner, based on Florida projections, but the razor-thin margin changed all that.

Republicans retained control of Congress but the Democrats narrowed the majorities in both the House and Senate.

If Bush wins, it would give the Republicans control of both Congress and the presidency for the first time in 46 years.

A Bush victory would give America its second father-son presidents after John Adams (1797-01) and John Quincy Adams (1825-29).

Green Party presidential candidate, Ralph Nader, who appealed to many liberal Democrats, took enough votes that might have gone to Gore to tip several states to the Republican, even though Nader had only 3 percent of the national vote.

Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan barely registered.

Bush and running mate Dick Cheney won in Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, North and South Dakota, North and South Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming.

Gore and his vice presidential partner, Joe Lieberman, won California, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin.

Tennessee is much more Republican now, and Gore lost his home state - as well as President Bill Clinton's home state of Arkansas.