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By SARA FRITZ, BILL ADAIR and DAVID BALLINGRUD
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 8, 2000
Republican George W. Bush, the eldest son of the 41st president, was elected to the nation's highest office today in a photo-finish election in which Florida voters played the decisive role.
Bush's paper-thin victory was all the more stunning because he appeared to be losing only hours before the outcome was known.
Just when his opponent, Democrat Al Gore, was on the verge of being declared the winner by some media outlets around 10 p.m. EST, the Republican candidate suddenly changed the momentum of the election-night drama by challenging the networks' projection that Gore had won Florida's 25 electoral votes.
As it turned out, Bush was right. When all the votes were counted, he wound up carrying Florida and that catipulted him into the presidency. Thus he became only the second son of a American president to be elected to the same office himself.
In the Florida U.S. Senate race, Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson, a Democrat, claimed victory over Republican Bill McCollum, but that race remained close too.
In another benchmark Senate race, first lady Hillary Clinton was elected to the Senate from New York, preserving a Democratic seat. Neither party was expected to win anything but a narrow majority in the House and Senate.
But Bush will not know until later today whether he will have an opportunity to govern with a Congress controlled by his own party. Republicans held a 54-46 edge before the voting, meaning Democrats needed to gain five seats to recapture the majority they lost in 1994.
Bush awaited the results with his family in the private residence of the governor's mansion in Austin, Texas; Gore was closeted with his entourage in a hotel suite in Nashville, Tenn., as he watched his projected victory evaporate.
It was the longest and most expensive race in American history. Experts estimate that a record $3-billion was spent to influence the outcome of the presidential and congressional races. Not only did Gore, Bush and their parties raise unprecedented amounts, but numerous special-interest groups invested untold sums on advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts in key battleground states.
Florida voters played a crucial role in an unusual election-night drama, turning out in numbers perhaps approaching 70 percent.
Gore appeared to be on his way to a narrow nationwide victory when Bush suddenly challenged the television networks' decision to put Florida's electoral votes into the Democratic column. The networks immediately responded by retracting the projection, and state election officials said the networks had been premature in giving Florida to Gore.
"I don't believe some of these states that they called, like Florida," Bush complained to reporters.
Bush also said he had been on the phone with Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, a Republican whom he had considered for his running mate. Ridge, Bush said, also was not convinced that Pennsylvania had gone for Gore, as television news was predicting.
"Florida is too close to call," said Florida's Republican Secretary of State Katherine Harris. "I said that from the first. We still had 500,000 registered voters out in the Panhandle. . . . We think it was inappropriate to make that call at 7 p.m."
Clay Roberts, head of the state Division of Elections, then cautioned the news media to wait for the final vote count in Florida before projecting a winner.
"If I were in the business of putting my reputation on television and predicting this, I'd leave it in the "too close to call' column for a while," he said just before midnight.
Roberts said there were 13 counties where ballots are counted in a central location, and election officials in those counties did not want to interrupt their counting to provide partial totals.
Miami-Dade County was one of the 13, according to Roberts, and that county is traditionally slow to report. In this year's runoff election, Miami-Dade did not send its final results in until 3 a.m. the morning after the election.
In Nashville, Gore's advisers were in the lobby of the Loews Hotel exchanging high-fives after the networks declared Gore the winner in Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania. But they retreated upstairs to their private suites when the networks retracted their Florida prediction and said the state was still up for grabs.
Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile said she was optimistic but that "it's still too close to call."
For months, Florida has been considered a key state in the election. Bush was counting on his brother Jeb, the governor, to deliver it. But Gore threw it in doubt by making 13 campaign trips to the state -- four more than Bush.
"We worked our butt off in Florida," said Greg Simon, Gore's senior strategist. "And (the Bush campaign) didn't lock it up eight months ago like they should have."
Even if Florida were not in dispute, neither Gore nor Bush could be certain of victory until the results came in from California and other large West Coast states. Gore did not even carry his native Tennessee. Thus he could be the first president since James K. Polk, another Tennesseean, to be elected president without the backing of his home state.
In addition to Tennessee, Bush was carrying his home state of Texas, Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma, Ohio, Missouri, Mississippi, Nevada, Kansas, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Hampshire, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming, according to network polls.
In addition to Pennsylvania, Michigan and Minnesota, Gore was carrying California, Washington, Hawaii, Illinois, Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Maine, Massachusetts, Delaware, Vermont and the District of Columbia. In a number of the states still contested early today, the difference between Gore and Bush was the approximate vote total won by Green Party candidate Ralph Nader.
A Gore victory would have been a triumph for President Clinton, who staked his legacy on installing his No. 2 in the Oval Office upon his departure Jan. 20. Although the Democratic nominee campaigned as "my own man," he benefited greatly from Clinton's efforts -- especially in raising millions of dollars.
But unlike Clinton, the new Democrat, Gore campaigned as a traditional liberal -- promising to enact several expensive new entitlement programs. Bush will become only the second president in the nation's history whose father also held the office. The first was John Quincy Adams, the sixth president. Although he denied it was his intention, many Republicans saw Bush's campaign as an effort to avenge his father's loss to Bill Clinton in 1992.
After a marathon week of late-night rallies and red-eye flights, Gore pulled another all-nighter Monday and made his final campaign stop in Florida, where he launched his general election drive last March.
At a midnight rally under a bright moon in Miami Beach, Gore was joined by celebrities such as Stevie Wonder, Jon Bon Jovi, Glenn Close and Robert De Niro.
Citing the worries of her 12-year-old daughter, Close said she was "drawing a line in the sand" and would vote for Gore because she preferred his stand on gun control.
The South Beach crowd was so large that thousands of people were turned away. They lined the streets and cheered Gore as his motorcade passed.
Gore told the crowd that he was confident of victory.
"Are you ready to win?!" he asked, as the crowd cheered. "Will you fight to win?"
The rally concluded with fireworks over the beach as Stevie Wonder sang a song he had adapted into a Gore-Lieberman theme.
Then Gore and his entourage took a short flight to Tampa, arriving shortly before 4 a.m. Tuesday. The motorcade sped through empty streets to the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center at the University of South Florida.
Gore, accompanied by Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa, met with nurses and pharmacists in the cafeteria and discussed their problems with HMOs and prescription drug coverage.
Gore, who has slept only a few hours each night over the past week, looked remarkably fresh in his crisp white shirt and red tie. His voice was hoarse and his eyes were a little red, but he confidently rattled off details about drugs and Medicare as if he had crammed for a final exam.
He apologized for his gravelly voice and noted that the traveling press corps looked ragged and was "in a circadian free-fall."
From there, the motorcade went to the Florida Bakery in Tampa. Gore and running mate Joe Lieberman, were served cups of Cuban coffee.
Gore lifted his cup and toasted Lieberman, saying L'chaim (to life).
Though the election pitted the scions of two influential political families, the candidates could not have been more different. Gore is a career politician and a tireless student of public policy; Bush, who made a youthful reputation for himself as a hard-drinking partyer, has previously been elected to only one public office: the governorship of Texas.
Despite his upright reputation, Gore was haunted during the campaign by questions of character. Voters told pollsters they were worried about about his hearty defense of President Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and his tendency to exaggerate his achievements.
Another obstacle for Gore was the third-party candidacy of Nader, the long-time consumer activist, who robbed the Democrat of many traditional liberal votes. To retrieve the Nader voters, Gore was forced to lean more to the left.
Bush, the governor of Texas, seemed to be taking the lead in the final days of the campaign. Although he turned in a better-than-expected performance against Gore in three televised debates, he never quite shook the image of a blunderer with a superficial grasp of public policy.
- Staff writer Diane Rado contributed to this report.