The recount may decide next president
By SARA FRITZ, BILL ADAIR and DAVID BALLINGRUD
The longest and most expensive presidential campaign in American history careened into a chaotic scene early this morning as election officials could not declare a winner in the key Florida vote.
The race for the presidency is apparently ending in a recount with neither candidate conceding or claiming victory.
"There's never been a night like this one," said William Daley, campaign chairman for Vice President Al Gore, after his boss retired for the night -- unsure whether he had won or not.
"Until the results in Florida become official our campaign continues," Daley said to cheering supporters in Nashville early today.
Bush's campaign chairman, Don Evans, said that Bush was winning in Florida by more than 1,200 votes.
"We hope and believe we have elected the next president of the United States," Evans said early this morning. "I'm confident we will prevail."
Twice during the night, first Gore and then Gov. George W. Bush, were thought to have won Florida's crucial 25 electoral votes and each time, sudden surges in the vote counts made everyone, including the exhausted candidates, reverse field.
As the sun rises today, it may still not be clear who will be the next president of the United states.
Gore had appeared headed for victory about 10 p.m. EST Tuesday, when Bush suddenly challenged the television networks' decision to put Florida into the Democratic column. CNN immediately responded by retracting its projection, and state election officials said the networks had been premature in giving Florida to Gore.
Florida Republican Secretary of State Katherine Harris said she thought Bush was leading by 100,000 votes in the state at 9:50 p.m.
"Florida is too close to call," she said minutes later. "I said that from the first. I was objecting from the very 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."
About 10:20 p.m., Clay Roberts, director of the state division of elections, said the state had only about 38 percent of the vote counted. He said some county supervisors were slow to report, because they were so busy.
He said that Dade County was still out and that Broward was reporting 30 percent to 40 percent of its total.
Gore staffers 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 crucial 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 senior strategist. "And (the Bush campaign) didn't lock it up eight months ago like they should have."
In the early morning hours of Wednesday, the Florida count seemed to be supporting Bush's early skepticism. He surged ahead and it appeared his lead was insurmountable. However, uncounted ballots in strongly Democratic pockets of South Florida made the race too close to call even as Bush supporters were reveling in the streets of Austin.
Florida's elections chief Roberts said an automatic recount is triggered by a margin of victory less than one half of one percent.
Gore did not 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.
And even after the outcome of the presidential contest is known, the winner would be forced to wait for hours longer to learn whether or not his party would control the Congress.
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.
Republicans held a 54-46 edge before the voting, meaning Democrats needed to gain five seats to recapture the majority they lost in 1994.
A Gore victory would also be 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. Thus the Gore administration could veer dramatically off the course set in the past eight years.
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.
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.
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.
Another obstacle for Gore was the third-party candidacy of long-time consumer activist Ralph Nader, who robbed the Democrat of many traditional liberal votes.
-- Staff writer Diane Rado contributed to this report.
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From the Times election desk
From the AP