Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush carried on an extraordinary struggle for the presidency through a long night of vote counting Tuesday, with the outcome waiting for Florida's 25 electoral votes to go firmly into one column or the other.
Bush was briefly declared the apparent winner when it looked as if he managed to win Florida, only to see his lead all but disappear as the last votes were trickling in from several Democratic strongholds, giving Gore one last hope of victory. The Florida margin appeared to be so close that it would trigger an automatic recount, possibly delaying any clear outcome in what appeared to be the closest electoral contest since 1916.
The two presidential candidates rode an emotional roller coaster as they watched the unfolding drama in the states from their headquarters, sparked by a premature call by the networks that put Florida and its 25 votes into Gore's column early in the evening only to be retracted later. It was then shortly before 2:30 a.m. when the networks and other news organizations awarded the state and the presidency to Bush, but within an hour the election was once again thrown into doubt.
Early this morning, Bush had won 29 states to 19 for Gore. Bush and Gore were running roughly even in the electoral college vote, but both were about 25 votes short of the magic 270. Oregon and Wisconsin remained too close to call but mathematically the presidential race hinged on the outcome in Florida.
The seesaw battle guaranteed that whoever manages to claim victory and the right to succeed President Clinton in office will come to the White House in January facing an enormous challenge in trying to unite a country that appeared sharply divided Tuesday and with both the House and Senate split between the major parties.
The last time the Republicans held the House, Senate and presidency was after the 1952 election.
Bush's win effectively ends the era of President Clinton, whose policies helped the country soar but whose life plunged into the depths of scandal and impeachment. From the start of his campaign 17 months ago, Bush struck a nerve with many Americans when he promised to restore honor and dignity to the Oval Office.
"He seems like a more honest and trustworthy person than Gore," Mary Fouts of Ridgefield, Wash., said Tuesday.
During Gore's campaign, he shunned the man he once said would go down in history as among the nation's greatest presidents. He all but abandoned the White House, and refused to approve of Clinton visiting battleground states lest he stir up as much animosity as support.
Bush carved out his electoral victory by winning among men, white voters, married couples and the wealthy, while Gore won among women, black voters, Hispanic voters, singles and those with incomes below $30,000, according to exit polls.
He won across the South, in his home of Texas, across the Great Plains and into the Rocky Mountain states. Gore held the Democratic base in the Northeast and industrial Midwest as well as California, but lost several historically Democratic states including his home of Tennessee.
The last major-party nominee to lose his home state was Democrat George McGovern of South Dakota in 1972.
The cliffhanger election pitted two princes of American politics against each other in a struggle to lead the government and the nation into the new century.
It forced the country to choose between two men who each had offsetting strengths and weaknesses, at a time when peace and prosperity left many Americans content with the direction of the country and unable to focus on the sweeping issues such as the economy or the Cold War that dominated politics for much of the last half of the 20th century.
And while Bush managed to win, he won narrowly, and will preside over a divided country and face a closely divided Congress where neither party can claim a steadfast working majority. That situation could test Bush's ability to forge a consensus and enact his agenda, even with his promise to reach across the partisan divide to get things done.
A new voice
Both of the major parties remain close to parity. Green Party candidate Ralph Nader's attempt to seize a footing in national politics fell short of the 5 percent needed to win public financing for the party in the 2004 presidential campaign. And the once-promising Reform Party slipped toward oblivion, as nominee Pat Buchanan also tallied well below the 5 percent threshold.
Florida had been the epicenter of the campaign and Tuesday night was chaotic. At one point news organizations said Gore was the winner, but they backtracked as more votes were counted and Bush eased ahead.
Gore won big battlegrounds in Pennsylvania, Michigan and California while Bush claimed Texas, Ohio and a string of smaller states, including Gore's Tennessee and Bill Clinton's Arkansas.
Bush, while capitalizing on an old name, gave his party a new voice at a time it was beginning to turn away from the confrontational politics that had shut down the federal government and impeached the president but also had lost the party broad support in the country.
Setting himself apart from the scandals in the Clinton White House and the partisan gridlock in the Congress, Bush said he had "no stake in the bitter arguments of the last few years" and in the process appealed to Americans fed up with either party or both.
Untainted by Washington, Bush pointed to a record of working with Democrats in Texas as a sign of the way he would reach across the political divide in Washington. He promised "a fresh start after a season of cynicism" and offered the nation more of the morning-in-America optimism of Ronald Reagan and less of the politics-as-battleground of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
He built his campaign around the notion that he was a different kind of Republican, a "compassionate conservative" who could hold his party's base while reaching out to independents and even some Democrats.
He appealed to traditional Republicans with calls for tax cuts and a strong national defense, positions that helped him lock up a solid base in the party and ward off a primary challenge from Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
But Bush also went to people and places few in his party had tried to visit.
He reached out to independents and swing voters by shunning some of the most polarizing elements of Republican politics in the last decade, criticizing the anti-immigration policies popular with Republicans in the 1990s, and reversing his party's crusade against the federal Department of Education. In fact, he proposed expanding the federal role in local education.
And in proposing reforms for education, for Medicare and Social Security, Bush worked to blur the differences between himself and Gore on those issues.
At times, Bush struggled to assure the country he was smart enough for the job. Early in the campaign, he stumbled when asked to name four foreign leaders in a television interview, and often became tongue-tied when under fire, tired or discussing complex numbers or issues.
For example, he repeatedly denied using ads he called "subliminable," rather than "subliminal," prompting ridicule on late-night TV. Last week, he suggested that Social Security is not a federal program, drawing a critical response from Gore's campaign.
But when Bush faced the largest audiences of the campaign during last summer's national convention and during the fall's three debates he appeared more surefooted and confident.
Gore had the benefit of being the incumbent at a time of unprecedented prosperity and almost made it to the presidency he had long coveted. But he was hobbled by his ties to Clinton and by his own lackluster performance as a politician.
Gore ran as the steward of peace and prosperity, and one who would extend its benefits to those left behind.
Straddling a splintered party, Gore spent much of the campaign leaning more toward its liberal traditions than its centrist members. He promised to use the nation's prosperity to expand government help for the poor, for children and for the elderly, and to defend cherished programs of the Democratic agenda.
And he embraced the politics of confrontation, promising to fight in Washington to fulfill promises such as expanding Medicare to cover the cost of prescription drugs.
It helped Gore appeal to the country's working class, the millions of American families with annual incomes between $25,000 and $50,000 a year. This pivotal group has held the key to the White House for every president since Nixon in 1972.
Gore's victories in the hard-fought states of Michigan and Pennsylvania stemmed from high turnout among African-American voters. He also benefited from lopsided support from women. "We're better off staying with Gore," homemaker Marian Tarzian, 72, of Philadelphia said, as her support for abortion rights prompted her to vote for the first time since 1960.
Yet Gore struggled to find his voice throughout the campaign, switching advisers, pollsters, slogans, even clothes as he searched for the right way to win the office he first sought in 1988.