The 2004 presidential contest was hardly an immediate runaway, with President Bush (search) not declared the winner until the morning after the Tuesday race, when the Democrats decided not to contest the battleground state of Ohio.
But Tuesday's turnout and a majority popular vote for the president indicated to many by Wednesday morning that Bush had indeed earned himself another term in office and a mandate to lead.
"It's not a gigantic mandate, but it's such a turnaround from four years ago when the president lost the popular vote that I think that he's in a formidable position," said Mort Kondracke, a FOX News analyst and executive editor of the Roll Call newspaper.
"President Bush is the first president since 1988 to win the majority of the vote. Bill Clinton never got over 50 percent, and of course, George Bush didn't get over 50 percent in 2000. His father was the last one," said Fred Barnes, a FOX News analyst and executive editor of the Weekly Standard.
But even while conceding, John Kerry (search) and other Democrats continued to say that the nation is extremely divided, a state that the president must take pains to overcome. The popular vote showed Bush ahead by 51-48 percent, among more than 114 million votes counted, and the president won 30 states with Iowa, the last undecided state, expected to go his way.
"In the days ahead, we must find common cause. We must join in common effort, without remorse or recrimination, without anger or rancor. America is in need of unity and longing for a larger measure of compassion. I hope President Bush will advance those values in the coming years," Kerry said in his concession speech on Wednesday.
Several Democratic officials and analysts told FOX News that the brief dispute over Ohio, and the irreconcilable differences between afternoon exit polling data and the final numbers coming from the states, would lead many to question the president's legitimacy.
"The fact is, 1 or 2 percent is still very divided ... I am still worried that we have a divide in terms of how we see this country going, and I am hoping that George Bush becomes a uniter not a divider, although he certainly didn't do so well in the last year or two," said radio host and FOX News contributor Ellen Ratner.
"We did not see any episodes that would indicate there was voter suppression or people being illegally barred from the voting place today," said National Public Radio correspondent Juan Williams. "That would suggest that the popular vote which favors President Bush is legitimate. But I think there are many people who are going to have all sorts of theories, all sorts of questions about the way things proceeded today. It's a very unusual day in American political history."
The presidential contest had appeared to be in a holding pattern throughout the Tuesday night returns. But when number crunchers gave the state of Ohio to Bush around 12:40 a.m. EST, the outcome seemed to take on a direction. Still needing four votes to win the Electoral College, the president picked up Alaska's three electoral votes right after polls closed there at 1:00 a.m. EST. The nation then sat in limbo while Kerry gained the 31 electoral votes of Minnesota, Michigan and New Hampshire, still putting him 27 electoral votes behind the president.
Around 10:30 a.m. EST Wednesday, Nevada finally got placed in the Bush column. The five electoral votes put Bush over the threshold.
GOP Expands Majority in Congress
Despite the long march to victory for the president, what was evident overnight were Republican gains in the U.S. House and Senate. Republicans were expecting a four-seat gain to take 55 Senate seats, including the one held by Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, and an anticipated gain of three House seats was expected to give Republicans a 232-202-1 majority.
GOP officials said the wins showed an historic era beginning for the Republican Party.
"I suspect that when everyone wakes up tomorrow, the Republicans will have 55 seats in the United States Senate as a result of the president's strong push across the country ... and we have gained seats in the House as well, so I don't think the country is as closely divided as is being made out to be. It looks to me like a decisive victory," said Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie.
"This is a very big deal. Presidents have won re-election without coattails, [Richard] Nixon in '72, [Ronald] Reagan in '84, Clinton in '96. Presidents have run for re-election and lost, [Jimmy] Carter in '80, the first President Bush in 1992. [The current] President Bush won with a minority of the popular vote, launched a difficult war in Iraq, had a tough economic situation that he inherited, could be accused of no job growth and all that. For him to win re-election and for the Republican Party to increase its seats in both the Senate and the House is a big moment, I think, in American politics," said Weekly Standard Publisher Bill Kristol.
But with tall promises made by the president during the debates, including pledges to make tax cuts permanent, to finish the difficult job in Iraq, to provide health savings accounts and insure the future of Social Security, Bush's ability to govern will depend a lot on the ability of Congress to work together, and that likely means negotiating with congressional Democrats.
"The president, if he won, he won by tearing down John Kerry," said Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif. "God knows the attacks went in both directions. I am just saying that if you win by attacking your opponent, you can't claim a mandate to run this country."
"This country consists of about 280 million people, most of whom are very scared by the threat of terrorism, and risk was a huge factor in this election," said Democratic strategist Darry Sragow. "The majority ultimately decided they would stick with [the president] rather than make a change in the face of a terrorist threat. That does not give the president a broad mandate to impose his social conservatism on everybody in this country."
But Republicans warned any impediment to Bush's ability to govern could be resolved by the Democratic challenger.
"If you want to talk about healing, the most important thing is for Democrats to quit talking about illegitimacy, to quit basically not accepting the will of the people and if you do end up with a kind of 51-48 vote here in favor of Bush, I would hope that John Kerry will not just concede but will urge his supporters to support this president," said Linda Chavez, head of the Center for Equal Opportunity.