Florida leaning Bush, for now

Americans surged to the polls Tuesday in the first wartime election in more than three decades, anxious to decide whether the country should stay the course with President Bush or shift direction with Sen. John Kerry.

Unusually long lines at precincts across the country underscored the intense interest in the outcome, with the stakes high and the choice between the two main candidates clear.

As it was in 2000, the country was divided, and the two rivals carved up much of the country along the familiar red-blue lines of election night maps, with red for Republican states and blue for Democratic states.

Around midnight EST, it became clear that Bush had held the crucial battleground of Florida. His apparent win came despite an impassioned campaign by the Democrats to take back the state they thought was wrongly taken from them in 2000.

For his part, Kerry held Pennsylvania, despite Bush’s persistent courting in 44 visits.

Neither side was able to win away a state from the other’s 2000 victory column as of midnight, EST. The final result was unclear and hinged on a handful of closely divided states.

Interest was so high that polls remained opened past closing time for those already in line in Florida and Ohio, two crucial battlegrounds that could determine the outcome.

Ohio Gov. Bob Taft said it probably would be very late before results could be determined there. In New Mexico, nearly 200,000 absentee ballots were outstanding in a state that was decided four years ago by 365 votes.

Other battleground states remained too close to call by 11:30 p.m. EST, including Iowa, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire and Wisconsin.

Bush held 22 states he carried in 2000: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming, according to projections by the television networks.

Kerry held the big battleground state of Pennsylvania, as well as 12 other states that the Democrats carried four years ago: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont and Washington, as well as Washington, D.C.

If Bush held all the states he won in 2000, he’d win re-election with 278 Electoral College votes. It takes 270 to win.

With 61 percent of the popular vote counted, Bush had 51 percent and Kerry 48 percent. Third-party candidates including Ralph Nader were all in single digits, but Nader could be a factor in close contests in Nevada and New Hampshire.

Bush, 58, the Republican, promised to prevail in Iraq, keep America safe from terrorists by taking the fight to enemies abroad, keep taxes low and protect traditional family values and institutions.

Kerry, 60, the Democratic nominee, vowed change at home and abroad. He promised to re-engage America’s traditional allies in Europe, expand health care for the uninsured, reduce health costs for businesses and employees, cut taxes for the middle class and raise taxes for the wealthy. He vowed 10 million new jobs.

Many Americans braved hour-plus waits to vote, suggesting that turnout could be the largest since 1968, when the country wrestled with its choice of a leader at the height of the Vietnam War.

“I’m willing to wait no matter how long,” said Kelly Jimenez, 34, of Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood. “Not everybody in the world has this privilege.”

“This election is too close to leave it up to chance,” said Langon Kane, 26, of suburban Philadelphia, who voted early so she could baby-sit her friends’ children in the evening, when their parents planned to vote. “I will be watching the returns tonight and holding my breath.”

Added Janice Carey, 52, of Davie, Fla.: “I think this is the most important election of my lifetime.”

American GIs standing watch in Iraq and around the world voted by absentee ballot.

“This election is in the hands of the people, and I feel very comfortable about that,” Bush said after voting at a firehouse near his ranch at Crawford, Texas. “Now’s the time for the people to express their will.”

He flew to Columbus, Ohio, for one last campaign pitch. He thanked volunteers at a phone bank, then took a line himself to talk to one surprised supporter. “Julie, this is President Bush calling,” he said. “No, I promise you it’s me. … I’m proud to have your support. I appreciate you taking my phone call. Thank you so very much.”

He told reporters that he and Kerry had given the American people a hard-fought campaign and a clear choice.

“Both of us will be able to say that we campaigned as hard as we possibly could,” Bush said. “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.”

Returning to Washington aboard Air Force One with first lady Laura Bush and their two daughters, Bush looked back on the long and sometimes bitter campaign by watching a slide show put together by a White House photographer.

Kerry started the day in LaCrosse, Wis., before returning to Boston to vote with his two daughters and enjoy a traditional Election Day dinner at the Union Oyster House, a Boston landmark.

“I’m very confident we made the case for change, for new leadership,” Kerry said.

His wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, voted with her children from her first marriage near their Pittsburgh-area home before joining the senator in Boston.

Memories of the 2000 election result and month-long recount battle hung over the day.

But most problems appeared minor.