"I want to thank all of you for staying up so late with us, and good morning," White House Chief of Staff Andy Card told haggard supporters at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, speaking at 5:45 a.m. EST. "We are convinced that President Bush has won re-election with at least 286 Electoral College votes."
Although Iowa, Nevada and New Mexico had not yet made their results officials, Card said the GOP camp was counting those states in its column. Card also declared victory in Ohio, despite claims by Kerry's campaign that the fight is not yet over in The Buckeye State.
"This all adds up to a convincing victory," Card said. "President Bush decided to give Senator Kerry the respect of more time to reflect on the results of this election."
Bush will make statement "later today," Card added.
Democrats insisted Kerry was still in contention for Ohio's decisive cache of 20 electoral votes. At issue were the more than 100,000 provisional ballots that still had to be counted.
Republican Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell has released provisional vote numbers for 78 of Ohio's 88 counties, showing a total of 135,149 provisional ballots, according to Blackwell's Web site. It appeared that the difference in the number of votes for the two candidates was greater than the number of outstanding ballots.
Disheartened Kerry aides met to evaluate his options, with concession the talk of the campaign.
Nothing was settled or conceded in the first light of day, but Kerry faced a daunting task trying to deny Bush an electoral majority that was almost within reach. The Democrat's campaign planned a statement by midday, advisers said.
Bush himself planned to declare victory before long. Republican Party Chairman Marc Racicot said the president put it off temporarily as a courtesy to Kerry, "to allow the opportunity to look at the situation in the cold hard light of day."
Before both sides retired for an hour or two of sleep, one top Kerry adviser said the Democrat's chances of winning Ohio, and with it the White House, were difficult at best. Advisers planned one last look for uncounted ballots that might close the gap before meeting with the candidate Wednesday to determine whether he should concede or fight on.
Kerry's team met first thing Wednesday and planned at least one other session before taking their recommendation to the senator, said several officials involved in the deliberations.
One senior Democrat familiar with the discussions said Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards (search), was suggesting to Kerry that he shouldn't concede.
The official said Edwards, a trial lawyer, wanted to make sure that all options were explored and Democrats pursued them as thoroughly as Republicans would if the positions were reversed.
Polls closed Tuesday night in all 50 states and the nation's capital in a race that was called one of the most hotly contested in American history. Iowa, New Mexico, Nevada and Wisconsin were too close to call at 6 a.m. EST on Wednesday. As of that time, Bush had 269 electoral votes; Kerry had 242. The victor needs 270 to win. An electoral tie would throw the race to the GOP-led U.S. House of Representatives to decide.
Bush won Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Oklahoma, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming, FOX News projects.
Kerry won California, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington, FOX News projects.
So far, New Hampshire is the only state to switch parties from the 2000 election outcome.
If Nevada and New Mexico had been called for the president, it was expected that Bush would have spoken Wednesday morning, but as dawn neared, the president went to bed. Vice President Dick Cheney also called it a night before daybreak, saying he wanted to sleep and eat some breakfast before starting the new day.
Around 4 a.m. EST Wednesday, New Mexico's secretary of state and election staff went home for the night. They were to resume ballot counting around 9 a.m. Before they left, they said thousands of absentee ballots have to be examined by hand, not to mention the many provisional ballots which they will go through regardless of the outcome.
Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie said the Election Day results show the country is not as divided as suspected.
"I think we saw obviously tonight a decisive win in the popular vote. I suspect that when everybody 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 will gain seats in the House of Representatives as well. So, I'm not sure the country is as closely divided as is made out to be," Gillespie said around 3:30 a.m. EST. "It looks to me a very decisive win today."
Fight for Ohio
The top Kerry election official in Florida said he knows it's over in the Sunshine State and did not see many litigation prospects there. But, he said, that approach may be applicable in Ohio.
Allegations of voter suppression abounded in The Buckeye State. Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill said the challenger's camp was not buying the projected tally in the crucial battleground state.
"The vote count in Ohio has not been completed. There are more than 250,000 remaining votes to be counted. We believe when they are, John Kerry will win Ohio," a statement read.
The race wasn't going to be decided Wednesday morning, according to other Kerry campaign officials. Around 2:30 a.m. Wednesday, vice presidential hopeful Edwards took the stage at Copley Square in Boston to give supporters a brief pep talk.
Introduced as the "next vice president of the United States," the North Carolina senator told Democratic supporters gathered for a victory rally to go home.
"It's been a long night but we've waited four years for this victory — we can wait one more night," Edwards said. "John and I are so proud of all of you who are here with us and all of you throughout the country who have stood with us through this campaign ... [We] promised every vote would count and every vote would be counted. Tonight, we are keeping our word and we will fight for every vote. You deserve no less. Thank you."
Kerry spokesman David Wade said later that no further briefings would be held until 10 a.m. EST Wednesday at the earliest.
But one Bush-Cheney strategist said Kerry had no chance of pulling a win out of Ohio.
"Impossible ... he can't make up for his margin of defeat. This is a desperate ploy," he said.
Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell told FOX News early Wednesday morning that about 5.8 million to 5.9 million people voted this year — about 1 million more than in 2000. He projected about a 72 percent voter turnout this year, as compared to 63 percent in 2000.
"This is a real spike," he said. "We're going to count every vote that was cast today and we're going to do it in a bipartisan system … that represents the true will of the people."
Provisional ballots are not counted until about 11 days after election. If the margin of victory for one candidate or another is comprised of fewer votes than the number of provisional ballots they have, Blackwell said, "that could stretch it out … [But] if it takes two more days, if it takes two more weeks," they will be counted.
Blackwell said about 30 percent more provisional ballots were cast this year than in 2000, estimating that this year's numbers are at about 140,000-150,000 provisional ballots. in 2000, 90 percent of provisional ballots were eventually counted.
Bob Bennett, Ohio chairman of the Republican Party, said 24,660 provisional ballots were cast in Cuyahoga County. However, the victory by Bush will be so that provisional ballots will not play a role, he said.
Earlier on Tuesday, Kerry spokeswoman Jen Palmieri told FOX News that the Kerry ground force in Ohio had set a new benchmark for any political party. In that state alone, they had 3,200 lawyers and paralegals on standby. Meanwhile, 27,843 volunteers were on standby statewide, 2,829 out-of-staters were in Ohio driving voters to the polls and the campaign had 270 full-time paid staffers in Ohio, as compared with 40 for Al Gore four years ago.
Besides the presidency, voters were filling 34 Senate seats, 11 governorships and all 435 House seats. Late Tuesday night, the Republicans' majority in the Senate was assured with 52 seats, with three races still left up for grabs. In 44 states, 5,800 legislative seats were also up for grabs.
Among the notable ballot measures was one in California to devote $3 billion for stem-cell research, which passed. Eleven states had passed propositions that would ban gay marriage. States including Kentucky, Georgia, Mississippi, Ohio and Oklahoma passed initiatives defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
Sopapillas and Littleneck Clams
The president spent the evening in the White House awaiting election returns with about 25 to 30 family and friends. A family buffet began about 7:30 p.m. EST and included squash soup, smoked salmon, sopapillas, shrimp, tamales, crab cakes, lamp chops, beef tenderloin and assorted American desserts. Televisions were set up for guests in the West Sitting Hall. Bush adviser Karl Rove was set up in the Old Family Dining Room to track results.
Bush, watching the returns with first lady Laura Bush, his parents, daughters Jenna and Barbara, sister Dorothy and her husband Bobby, brothers Neil and Marvin and sister-in-law Margaret, said the Bush clan was "very upbeat."
"I believe I will win, thank you very much. I feel good about it," Bush said. "I'm glad to be able to watch the returns here with my family and friends. It's going to be an exciting evening."
Bush, voting earlier in the day at a local firehouse in Crawford, Texas, said, "I've given it my all."
He also made reference to the last presidential election.
"I think it's very important for it to end tonight," Bush told reporters, referring to the expected legal challenges in some districts. "The world watches our great democracy function."
The senator from Massachusetts cast his ballot in Boston. "I am very confident that we have made the case for change for new leadership for a fresh start," Kerry said.
Kerry finished his last satellite interview earlier Tuesday evening. He did interviews with 38 stations on Tuesday and Edwards did 40. Kerry watched returns in his Boston residence and did not appear before supporters overnight.
Upon his return to Massachusetts from Wisconsin for a last-chance stop, Kerry bent over and touched the ground. He ate his traditional Election Day lunch of littleneck clams and a dark beer at his lucky restaurant, Boston's historic Union Oyster House.
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Cheney and his wife Lynne cast their votes Tuesday morning in Wilson, Wyo. Edwards voted in his home state of North Carolina.
Both national parties have engaged in unprecedented voter-turnout efforts in this nail-biter of an election between an incumbent candidate who says his steadfast leadership is needed to win the War on Terror (search) and a challenger who claims the current president has caused the world's view of America to diminish while allowing domestic concerns to be cast aside.
Fight for the Battlegrounds
Battleground states under extremely close scrutiny this year included Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Prior to the projection for Bush, Florida was cautiously watched after being home to the 2000 election recount between Bush and Gore. Bush won the presidency four years ago only after a Supreme Court decision stopped hand recounts in Florida, giving Bush the state and the Electoral College majority.
Republican strategists say they're being told that absentee ballots in Miami-Dade County cannot be counted until Thursday because of the crush of balloting. However, the tally in Florida showed the president up by more than 375,000 votes with 99 percent of precincts reporting.
Four years ago, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush spent election night with his brother, then the Texas governor, in Texas, and missed the start of the Sunshine State's recount. He was not taking any chances this time and stayed put in Tallahassee.
New Mexico was another state being closely watched.
"I think here in New Mexico, it's going to be down to the wire," New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, told FOX News. "I predict Kerry will win by 1 percent because of the huge amount of Indian and Hispanic voters we registered in the past month.
All 99 Iowa counties reported 502,110 absentee ballots; the state counts early voting as an absentee ballot. The secretary of state is still waiting to hear from smaller counties — but a minimum of 442,000 of those were expected to be counted before the night's results were in. Unaccounted absentee ballots must be in precincts by noon Nov. 8, having been postmarked by Nov. 1.
Inside the Candidates' Camps
Earlier in the evening, senior Kerry adviser Joe Lockhart told reporters that the Kerry camp thought it had a comfortable win in Minnesota, might hold Wisconsin and might hold Iowa.
But late into the night, Republicans were feeling much better about their position, and said their numbers were much more accurate than the exit polls.
One strategist was asked by FOX News just how bad they felt when they saw the early exit polls. "I bought a box of Kleenex, but didn't open them," he said.
"At the beginning of the night, we were asking how we could have been so far off," the strategist said. Now, they say the actual numbers are far closer to their projections than the early exit polls.
Bush strategists say Nevada is looking very good. In areas around Las Vegas and Reno, the Democrats were only up 3,000 votes in late counting. Republicans had expected the Democrats to beat them by 25,000 in Las Vegas alone.
Independent candidate Ralph Nader told FOX News Tuesday night that no matter who wins — Bush or Kerry — voters will lose. The goal of his campaign was to "put the progressive agenda before the public," he said.
"It's a winner-take-all mindset of most people," Nader said of why he didn't get farther than he did in this presidential election. "[Voters] know that only one of the two, Republican or Democrat, is going to win. The system is very rigged against" other candidates, he added. "The problem is, the two parties keep saying to us, 'vote for the winner' and they keep losing" to corporate interests, he continued.
FOX News' Jim Angle, Steve Brown, Carl Cameron, Wendell Goler and The Associated Press contributed to this report.