Washington D.C. — (AP) President Bush and challenger John Kerry fought to the wire in their long, bitter race for the White House on Tuesday as Americans turned out in droves to choose between their embattled wartime president and a Democrat who vigorously questioned the invasion of Iraq.
As the first polling places closed in eastern portions of Kentucky and Indiana, Bush held a lead in the traditionally Republican states.
"I've given it my all," the incumbent said after voting at a Crawford, Texas, firehouse.
Kerry, a four-term Massachusetts senator, got teary-eyed as he thanked his staff for a campaign's worth of work. "We made the case for change," he said after voting at the Massachusetts Statehouse.
Alongside the first presidential election since the Sept. 11 attacks, control of Congress was at stake as Bush's fellow Republicans sought to extend their hold on the House and Senate. A full roster of propositions and local offices filled ballots nationwide.
Exit polls suggested that slightly more voters trusted Bush to handle terrorism than Kerry. But most voters said the country was headed in the wrong direction, and those wrong-track voters overwhelmingly backed Kerry.
One in 10 voters were casting ballots for the first time and fewer than 10 percent were young voters, hardly the groundswell that experts had predicted. Kerry was favored by both groups, according to the surveys conducted for The Associated Press by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International.
Turnout was the great unknown. Spending more money than ever to target voters, Democrats enlisted an army of paid organizers while Republicans issued marching orders by e-mail to legions of volunteers in the small towns and the farthest suburbs of battleground states.
Pre-election polls indicated the presidential race could be as close as 2000, when Bush lost the popular vote to Democrat Al Gore but won the Electoral College count and the presidency after a ruling by the Supreme Court gave him Florida. The incumbent hoped to avoid the fate of his father - former President George H.W. Bush, who was bounced by voters in 1992 after waging war against Iraq and overseeing an ailing economy.
Officials predicted a turnout of 117.5 million to 121 million people, the most ever and rivaling the 1960 election in the percentage of eligible voters going to the polls. Voters welcomed an end to the longest, most expensive election on record.
"It's the only way to make the ads stop," Amanda Karel, 25, said as she waited to vote at a banquet hall in Columbus, Ohio.
Legions of lawyers and election-rights activists watched for signs of voter fraud or disenfranchisement. Complaints cropped up across the country, but voting seemed to be going smoothly overall.
Poring over exit polls and field reports, campaign strategists barked out 11th-hour orders to wrestle every vote from key states. At Bush's headquarters in Arlington, Va., aides identified low-turnout precincts and dispatched more walkers to them. In Boston, advisers gave Kerry a longer-than-expected list of TV interviews to conduct by satellite to Wisconsin, Minnesota, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Oregon.
I don't think anybody can anticipate what it's like to see your name on the ballot for president. It's very special. It's exciting.
That was an interesting list: Oregon was supposed to be safely Democratic and Colorado had seemed to be tilting toward Bush heading into Tuesday.
In the final hours of the campaign, Kerry's strategists tried to boost turnout in Hispanic areas. Exit polls showed the Democrat winning the Hispanic vote, but not by as much as Gore in 2000.
Interviews with voters as they left the polls showed that Kerry was doing better among women and independents than the incumbent.
Democrats nurtured faint hopes of winning back the Senate, where Republicans held a 51-48 advantage. Only nine of 34 Senate races on the ballot appeared competitive, seven of them in states where Kerry had not seriously contested Bush.
In South Dakota, all eyes were on the race between the Senate's top Democrat, Tom Daschle, and Republican rival John Thune.
Five hours before the polls opened in South Dakota, Daschle won a court order forbidding Republican poll watchers in one county from following American Indians after they cast ballots, or from writing down their license plate numbers. Thune's campaign said it would appeal. All 435 House seats were up for election, but Democrats had little hope of a takeover. Republicans hold 227 seats, Democrats 205, with one Democratic-leaning independent and two vacancies in Republican-held seats.
With strategies molded by polls throughout the campaign, Kerry promised voters a new direction while Bush played up the risks of change.
Bush, 58, never more popular than the weeks after the terrorist strikes three years ago, constantly reminded voters of those days and cast himself as a strong, steady leader in an era of unease. He called Kerry indecisive and argued that Iraq was part of a global battle against terror.
"The people know where I stand," he said Tuesday. "The people know I know how to lead."
Kerry, 60, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, questioned Bush's Sept. 11 response and often accused him of rushing into the "wrong war at the wrong time" in Iraq. He said the president refused to recognize problems at home and abroad, much less fix them.
On Tuesday, he criticized Bush on a spate of domestic issues plus Iraq, and said whoever was elected would face a long list of problems.
"I'm not pretending to anybody that it's a bed of roses," Kerry said.
With nearly 1 million jobs lost in Bush's term, pre-election surveys showed voters favoring Kerry over Bush on the economy and a majority believing the country was on the wrong track. Barely half approved of the president's job performance.
But most Americans also expected another terrorist strike, and they trusted Bush over Kerry to protect the country. No wartime president has lost on Election Day, though Presidents Truman and Johnson, both Democrats, opted against seeking re-election while fighting unpopular wars.
Vying for 270 Electoral College votes, the candidates' playing field extended as far as two dozen states but focused on fewer than 10, primarily in the Midwest and Florida.
Despite spending caps, the candidates and their allies spent a combined $600 million on television ads, more than twice the total in 2000.
The legal fees piled up, too. Both sides braced for recounts and other court challenges.
Eleven gubernatorial contests were being decided Tuesday, along with 5,800 legislative seats in 44 states.
Among the notable ballot measures was one in California to devote $3 billion for stem cell research. Several states had propositions that would ban gay marriage.
The war on terror aside, there were fresh reminders of the election's stakes. Eighty-year-old Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, cornerstone of a conservative Supreme Court, disclosed Monday he was undergoing radiation and chemotherapy for his thyroid cancer, a sign that he had a potentially grave form of the disease.
While neither candidate offered a specific exit strategy for Iraq, Kerry asserted that the election of a new president alone would persuade allies to take a greater share of the costs and sacrifices born by the United States.
The Democrats said he hoped to start withdrawing troops from Iraq in the first months of his presidency. Bush said such talk only encouraged terrorists.
The weapons of mass destruction Bush said were in Iraq were never found and more than 1,100 Americans have died in the conflict - 976 of them since he declared an end to combat operations May 1, 2003.
Kerry voted against the Persian Gulf War waged by Bush's father. He voted in favor of the 2002 resolution authorizing war in Iraq. On the stump, Bush called Kerry's a record of political expedience.
Bush blamed the Sept. 11 attacks for the sluggish economy and said his tax cuts put the nation on the road to recovery. Kerry noted that Bush was the first president in eight decades to end his term with net job losses.
Unabashedly conservative, Bush said he shared with voters the values of faith and family. Kerry said his faith and activities - hockey and hunting - put him in the mainstream, too.
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)