This time, key to presidency lies with Ohio

Published November 3, 2004

The longest and most expensive presidential campaign in history came down to the wire Tuesday night like a rerun of 2000, with President Bush winning all-important Florida, but both campaigns anxiously waiting for a clear national outcome.

By midnight, all eyes were on Ohio, which no Republican has lost and managed to win the White House. Bush was leading there, but Democrats held out hope for late-reporting precincts.

By early this morning, anxious voters in a deeply polarized nation faced another uncertain outcome even as the incumbent was poised for a potentially decisive electoral victory.

It takes 270 electoral votes to win, and just winning all the states he won in 2000 gave Bush 278 electoral votes, because of redistricting. By midnight, neither candidate had flipped a state that the other side won in 2000. Kerry needed to win some former Bush states, and his campaign worked hardest in Florida and Ohio, with 47 electoral votes combined. But he lost Florida and was trailing in Ohio. He was holding out hope for several western states.

Both campaigns spent tens of millions of dollars in Florida and mounted unprecedented grass roots campaigns. But well before skittish network anchors were ready to call the recount state, Republicans saw a surprisingly comfortable lead for Bush.

"We won big in Florida," Gov. Jeb Bush said. "I'm really proud of my brother." He said he had been keeping in touch with him all night and told him to forget about Florida and worry about other states.

Not since 1888 has America seen two neck-and-neck presidential elections in a row.

This race continually defied conventional wisdom. It played out against the backdrop of continuing American casualties in Iraq and the ever-present specter of more terrorist attacks at home.

President Bush looked unbeatable in the months after Sept. 11, while less than a year ago Kerry appeared headed for defeat in the Democratic primaries.

The first national election since the terrorist attacks, it featured a starkly divided country and a campaign that remained close to the end. State and national polls variously showed Bush or Kerry narrowly ahead, while massive efforts to register and mobilize new and infrequent voters remained a wild card.

More than 105-million Americans voted in 2000, when Bush lost the popular vote but won the presidency with a 537-vote advantage in Florida. Early projections Tuesday suggested an additional 10-million to 15-million voters may have turned out.

In Florida and other states people accustomed to quick voting found lines of an hour or more.

"If the turnout is as big as it seems to be the story of this election is that people believed they had power," said Karin Johanson, the Florida head of America Coming Together, one of many independently operating Democratic group to spend months mobilizing voters.

"It's really inspiring watching all those people standing in line waiting to vote."

But by late Tuesday, it appeared Republicans had won the massive ground war in Florida.

The unexpectedly strong Bush performance in Florida followed the basic Republican math: Big turnout in Republican strongholds in North Florida, minimizing losses in Southeast Florida and beating Kerry among swing voters in Central Florida.

The president won in Pinellas, Hernando and Pasco counties, all carried by Democrat Al Gore in 2000, and Bush won again in Hillsborough County.

Nationally, Republicans renewed their grip on the Senate Tuesday night and reached out for more, capturing Democratic seats across the south. Democratic leader Tom Daschle faced a strong challenge in South Dakota in a race that was too close to call.

In Florida, Republican Mel Martinez was narrowly leading Democrat Betty Castor in the race for retiring Sen. Bob Graham's seat; early returns showed Castor outperforming Kerry in Florida.

In a resounding coast-to-coast rejection of gay marriage, voters in 11 states approved constitutional amendments Tuesday limiting marriage to one man and one woman.

In Colorado, voters rejected a measure to scrap the winner-take-all system of awarding electoral votes and divide them based on popular vote.

All 435 House seats were up for election, but Democrats had little hope of a takeover.

Armies of lawyers and party activists fanned across Florida and other swing states poised to pounce on problems, but the state dubbed Flori-duh after the 2000 debacle saw a mostly smooth election this time around. Sporadic problems cropped up here and there, but nothing widespread.

The Bush-Cheney campaign had hoped for a decisive win to put the doubts from 2000 to rest. They expected an unprecedented voter mobilization program featuring more than 100,000 volunteers, combined with stronger showings among Jewish, Hispanic and African-American voters would do the trick.

But surveys conducted for the St. Petersburg Times and other media outlets by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International showed Republicans had more success energizing their base than peeling off blocs of Democratic voters.

First-time voters - heavily targeted by Democratic groups and Bush-Cheney - accounted for 13 percent of the electorate and favored Kerry over Bush 5 8 percent to 41 percent.

As in 2000, more than eight in 10 Jewish voters backed the Democrat. Bush did slightly better with African-Americans compared to 2000, but he still took just 12 percent of that vote.

The exit polls showed Democrats making big gains among Florida's fast-growing and heavily courted Hispanic population, which is no longer defined by staunchly Republican Cuban-Americans. Bush won an estimated 65 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2000, but exit polls Tuesday showed him winning just 54 percent.

Kerry did not do as well with women in Florida as did Al Gore, but he outperformed Gore with men. Florida women favored Kerry over Bush 52 percent to 48 percent; Florida men favored Bush over Kerry 52 percent to 46 percent, a sharp drop for Bush since 2000.

Six in 10 independent voters, the fastest growing voter group in Florida, backed Kerry.

As the barrage of campaign ads continued on Florida TVs Tuesday, hundreds of thousands of Floridians received phone calls and personal visits from party activists urging them to vote. Nearly half of all Florida voters said they had been contacted and urged to vote for Kerry or Bush.

By mid day, Kerry-Edwards phone bankers started calling Democrats and urging them to ignore recorded phone calls in which someone invited them to vote by phone, rather than in-person. Democrats said it was a trick to keep people from voting.

Florida was a virtual must-win state for Bush. As leaked exit polls showed Kerry narrowly leading in Florida, the Bush-Cheney campaign e-mailed reporters urging them not to jump to conclusions because of so many uncounted absentee ballots. As it turned out, Bush opened a commanding lead even without those ballots.

The president worked hard to avoid the kinds of mistakes that cost his father a second term in 1992. After 9/11 he led a deeply united country and enjoyed stratospheric approval ratings that ultimately came crashing down amid the sluggish economy and the controversial war in Iraq. Not since Vietnam had foreign policy so dominated a presidential election.

But what was widely expected to be a referendum on Bush often seemed more like a referendum on Kerry. Polls consistently showed a majority of Americans unhappy with the direction of the country under Bush, yet Kerry struggled to convince a majority of voters he was an acceptable alternative.

The 2004 contest cost more than $600-million - making it the most expensive race in history. It also turned into one of the most negative.

The Bush-Cheney campaign relentlessly cast Kerry as a flip-flopper who could not be trusted to lead the country during dangerous times. The Kerry-Edwards campaign cast Bush as a stubborn ideologue out of touch with average Americans and with the reality of serious problems in Iraq.

Polls consistently showed voters trusted the president more handling Iraq and the war on terrorism, while Kerry had more trust on most domestic issues.

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. A majority of voters said things were going poorly in Iraq, and they heavily favored Kerry.

On Tuesday, the exhausted candidates wound down for the long wait.

A weary-looking President Bush began the day voting at a firehouse in Crawford, Texas. He flew to Columbus, Ohio, and stopped in the Bush-Cheney campaign headquarters to thank volunteers. He even manned the phone bank and surprised voter Julie Leahy.

"Julie, this is President Bush calling. How are you? No, I promise you it's me," the president said, winning her support. "One to nothing," he added, after hanging up.

Bush did last-minute TV interviews with WFLA-Ch. 8 in Tampa and stations in Orlando, Jacksonville and Panama City.

During the flight to Washington on Air Force One, Bush watched a slide show from the campaign taken by White House photographer Eric Draper.

The president sounded winsome when he spoke to reporters Tuesday morning.

"Both of us will be able to say that we campaigned as hard as we possibly could. I have made the differences as clear as possible about why I think I am the best leader for the country for the next four years. You know, we'll find out tonight what the American people think."

Kerry spent Monday night campaigning in Ohio then held a 1 a.m. rally with about 2,000 supporters at a frigid airfield in LaCrosse, Wis. After dawn, before the precincts opened, he was at it again, visiting his campaign office in La Crosse and handing out lists of likely Democratic voters to volunteers who planned to knock on doors and urge them to go to the polls.

Wisconsin allows election-day voter registration, and Kerry couldn't resist one more push.

"So you can go out and vote," he told about 250 supporters in LaCrosse, repeating that no one has an excuse to stay home. "No such thing as I didn't register, I can't vote. ... I'm counting on you."

By noon he was back in his hometown of Boston, where his motorcade wound past fans holding Kerry signs en route to the Massachusetts State House, where he would vote. He was accompanied by his daughters, Alexandra and Vanessa, and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, who had voted earlier in her home state of Pennsylvania.

The Kerrys had the basement hearing room to themselves, and Kerry took his time in the booth, at one point borrowing his wife's glasses. He sounded nostalgic when he emerged.

"I don't think anyone can anticipate what it's like seeing your name on the ballot for president," Kerry said, after hugging his daughters.

"This campaign has been an amazing, wonderful journey," he said. "I'm very confident that we made the case for change, the case for trust in new leadership, a new direction, a fresh start."

He added that "what's really important is that the president and I love this country," and that regardless the outcome, "America would be united, and we will move forward no mater what."

It was time for lunch. Kerry went to his traditional election-day restaurant, the historic Union Oyster House near Boston Harbor, where he downed a dozen littleneck clams, coleslaw, mashed potatoes, a filet of sole and a dark ale.

Still hunting for votes, Kerry returned to the campaign's election night headquarters for a series of satellite TV interviews with stations in West Palm Beach, Miami, Detroit, New Mexico, Wisconsin and other areas where the outcome was still in question, or Kerry wanted to be extra-sure to drive voters to the polls.

He finished at 6:30 p.m., four hours and 38 stations later.

Whoever winds up above 270 electoral office faces a still sluggish economy, serious challenges in Iraq and a deeply polarized electorate likely to be hard to unify. A recent NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll found 65 percent of people disagreed that regardless of who won race, America will have a good president.

Staff writers Bill Adair and Wes Allison contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press. Adam C. Smith can be reached at 727893-8241 or adam@sptimes.com