Dallas — The television networks threw yellow caution lights on their red and blue projections Tuesday night, returning viewers to the "trickle in" presidential elections of a pre-TV era.
"We certainly want to know what's going on. But we know we have to be careful," CBS anchor Dan Rather said after most of the nation's polls had closed.
Key "battleground states" remained too close to call as anchors despaired of a clean, same-night outcome. Memories of 2000's Florida fiasco left them traveling at school-zone speeds rather than rushing to conclusions.
A steady parade of politicians, including President Bush himself, instead filled home screens while electoral vote projections remained stalled well short of the magic 270 mark. Bush briefly let cameras into the White House to capture him in a buoyant mood while he watched returns with his family. All of the major networks aired the pictures between 8:45 and 9 p.m. while also wondering whether they'd been manipulated.
NBC's Brian Williams, heir to "Nightly News" anchor Tom Brokaw, said the White House wanted the nation to see something other than an exhausted president in "non-upbeat" situations during the final hours of the campaign. The election night photo-op came with the certainty that "we would all pump it out as soon as we got the videotape," Mr. Williams said.
Meanwhile, ABC's Ted Koppel traveled with Sen. John Kerry as part of "Nightline's" bird's-eye view of the campaign's final days. Anchor Peter Jennings wondered whether the Democrats might be spinning him as well.
"I know we have to be very, very careful in times like this not to get caught up in the calculated and false optimism," Koppel said. Still, he said, "it feels as though they really mean it when they come at us with this optimism right now."
Some of that euphoria may have been drawn from Internet bloggers who touted exit polls as favoring a victory by Kerry while the networks steadfastly held their fire. On CBS, White House correspondent Bill Plante said Republican operatives had told him, "Don't trust those polls that you see on the Internet," because they were undercounting Republican votes.
Rather replied, "Right now, only votes talk. Everything else walks, including all that spin."
The networks brought out their election night finery, which on NBC and MSNBC included a colorful outdoor "Democracy Plaza" with a red-blue electoral map sketched on the Rockefeller Center ice rink. CNN countered with a splashy set and a showy, oversized electronic data wall that at times looked a little too busy for maximum visual impact. Fox News Channel had a lower-key look, but still got the job done.
NBC's Tim Russert deployed his trademark erasable white board to illustrate various scenarios by which either candidate could win. Then Brokaw almost lost his voice while interviewing Bush strategist Karen Hughes.
Rather occasionally used a pencil to point out changes in the electoral map. He also, of course, spouted the "Dan-isms" for which he's become famous -- or otherwise.
"This presidential race is hotter than the devil's anvil," he said shortly after 7 p.m. And an hour later, "We feel confident in saying this race is really going to be tight, and in some ways, George Bush's lead is as thin as November ice."
By 10:44 p.m., however, CBS became the first network to call Florida for Bush, pushing him to 246 electoral votes. Slowly the thick ice at Rockefeller Center began filling in its color.