WASHINGTON President Bush and challenger John Kerry sweated out a tension-packed conclusion to the race between an embattled incumbent and a Democrat who questioned the war he waged in Iraq and the many jobs lost at home. Ohio loomed as this year's Florida, the decisive state, with Kerry's options dwindling.
With seven states up in the air well past midnight in the East, Kerry dispatched running mate John Edwards to tell supporters that the election will not be decided before much later today, said a senior adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Edwards' statement would be an echo of 2000 when advisers to both Bush and Democrat Al Gore told supporters that the race was too close to call setting off a 36-day recount.
Bush won Florida, the state he nailed down four years ago only after a 36-day recount and Supreme Court decision. Kerry took New Hampshire from Bush, who won it in 2000, but the state has just four electoral votes. That leaves Ohio and Nevada as Kerry's only hopes, and he wasn't conceding either.
"The vote count in Ohio has not been completed," said Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill. "There are more than 250,000 remaining votes to be counted. We believe when they are, John Kerry will win Ohio."
Not so, according to Bush's advisers who told the president he would capture the state.
"I believe I will win, thank you very much," Bush said while awaiting results with his family and dog Barney.
Kerry, a four-term Massachusetts senator, allowed himself to muse about the problems he might face in the White House, including a soaring deficit and a war that has claimed more than 1,100 lives.
"I'm not pretending to anybody that it's a bed of roses," the Democrat said.
The Electoral College count was excruciating: With 270 votes needed, Bush won 27 states for 249 votes. Kerry won 16 states plus the District of Columbia for 221 votes.
In the early hours of Wednesday, with several battleground states still unsettled, Kerry was still on the hunt for electoral votes the GOP won four years ago. The states won by Democrat Al Gore in 2000 are worth just 260 votes this year due to redistricting 10 short of the coveted number.
Kerry could pick that up plus some in Ohio with 20 electoral votes. Without the Buckeye state, he could only turn to Nevada (5 votes).
A 269-269 tie would throw the presidential race to the House.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.: "Obviously the presidential race is going to keep us up most of the night."
Bush lost Pennsylvania, a major blow after courting voters with steel tariffs and 44 visits the most of any state in a bid to steal it from the Democrats. The loss raised the stakes in Ohio, won by Bush in 2000.
In Nevada, independent candidate Ralph Nader could play the spoiler.
Republicans moved toward increasing their majority in the Senate, winning Democratic seats in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Louisiana while Democrats took GOP-held seats in Colorado and Illinois. State Sen. Barack Obama won easily in Illinois; in January, he will be the third black U.S. senator since Reconstruction.
Republicans extended their decade-long hold on the House for another two years, knocking off four veteran Texas Democrats.
Alongside the White House and congressional races, a full roster of propositions and local offices kept voters busy. But all eyes were focused on Kerry's bid to make Bush the first president voted out of office in the midst of a war.
"I've given it my all," Bush said after voting in a firehouse at Crawford, Texas, hoping to avoid being the first wartime president bounced from office.
The race showed signs of being as close as 2000, when Bush lost the popular vote to Gore but won the Electoral College count and the presidency after a ruling by the Supreme Court gave him Florida. The incumbent hoped to avoid the fate of his father former President George H.W. Bush, who was bounced by voters in 1992 after waging war against Iraq and overseeing an ailing economy.
Braced for a replay of the 2000 recount, legions of lawyers and election-rights activists watched for signs of voter fraud or disenfranchisement. New lawsuits sought clearer standards to evaluate provisional ballots in Ohio and a longer deadline to count absentee ballots in Florida.
While complaints were widespread, they weren't significant. "So far, it's no big, but lots of littles," said elections expert Doug Chapin.
Voters were torn over the presidential race, in ways all too familiar.
Exit polls suggested that slightly more voters trusted Bush to handle terrorism than Kerry. A majority said the country was safer from terrorism than four years ago, and they overwhelmingly backed Bush.
However, among those who said they were very worried about a terrorist strike, Kerry held a slight lead. That was a troubling sign for the incumbent as was this: A majority of voters said things were going poorly in Iraq, and they heavily favored Kerry.
With nearly 1 million jobs lost in Bush's term, Kerry was favored by eight of 10 voters who listed the economy as a top issue.
The nation's mood? There was division on that, too. Half said the country was headed in the right direction, a good sign for the incumbent.
Voters welcomed an end to the longest, most expensive presidential election on record. "It's the only way to make the ads stop," Amanda Karel, 25, said as she waited to vote at a banquet hall in Columbus, Ohio.
Both sides spent a combined $600 million on TV and radio ads, more than twice the total from 2000.
Bush won among white men, voters with family incomes above $100,000 and weekly churchgoers. Three-fourths of white voters who described themselves as born-again Christians or evangelicals supported Bush.
The president had hoped to increase his support among the religious right since 2000, but exit polls suggest there was little change.
Kerry retained Gore's margins among blacks and union households, key parts of the Democratic base. His voters named the economy and Iraq as top issues.
One in 10 voters were casting ballots for the first time and fewer than 10 percent were young voters, hardly the groundswell that experts had predicted. Kerry was favored by both groups, according to the surveys conducted for The Associated Press by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International.
Officials predicted a turnout of 117.5 million to 121 million people, the most ever and rivaling the 1960 election in the percentage of eligible voters going to the polls.
Poring over exit polls and field reports, Bush's aides in Arlington, Va., identified low-turnout precincts and dispatched more walkers to them. In Boston, advisers gave Kerry a longer-than-expected list of TV interviews to conduct by satellite to Wisconsin, Minnesota, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Oregon.
Kerry's aides also tried to boost turnout in Hispanic areas by having the candidate's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, do Spanish-language television interviews. Exit polls showed the Democrat winning the Hispanic vote, but not by as much as Gore in 2000.
Voters in Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio received a wave of last-minute telephone calls as Kerry's strategists sought to nail down victories in those key Midwest battlegrounds.
Bush won Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming.
Kerry won California, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and statewide in Maine. One Maine vote remained a tossup.
Only nine of 34 Senate races on the ballot appeared competitive. One of them was held by Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, who was in a pitched fight against Republican John Thune.
All 435 House seats were up for election, but Democrats had little hope of a takeover. Republicans hold 227 seats, Democrats 205, with one Democratic-leaning independent and two vacancies in Republican-held seats.
Eleven gubernatorial contests were being decided Tuesday, along with 5,800 legislative seats in 44 states. Former Bush administration budget director Mitch Daniels won the governorship in Indiana, taking the seat from the Democrats.
Among the notable ballot measures, voters in 11 states approved propositions that would ban gay marriage. In California, voters approved spending $3 billion on stem-cell research.