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Analysis: An almost rerun in the presidential race

Washington, D.C. — (AP) - Here we go again. Well, not quite.

Just as in 2000, Americans woke up on Wednesday not sure who would be the next president and with lawyers from both sides leaping into the fray. But as high political mystery, this seemed a short story compared to the electoral inertia in Florida four years ago.

Late Wednesday morning, Sen. John Kerry called President Bush to concede the election to him. That followed a long night of soul-searching by the Massachusetts Democrat who told the nation it needed a new direction under his command.

While Tuesday's cliffhanger smacked in some ways of Florida revisited - with Ohio as the state of stalemate this time - Bush had something he didn't have then: a substantial lead in the popular vote. Kerry clearly saw that in the nocturnal vote-counting that made a nightmare of his dream for the White House.

Nationally, Bush rolled up a 51 percent to 48 percent overall advantage.

Four years ago, Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote, albeit by a fraction of a percentage point, but lost the electoral vote to Bush after the Supreme Court ended a six-week Florida recount.

To many Democrats, there was a sense of poetic justice - or payback - in the notion that Kerry could win the electoral vote while losing the popular vote, the mirror image of the 2000 outcome. However, Republicans argued the math was dubious for a Kerry electoral victory.

Andrew Card, Bush's chief of staff, asserted victory on behalf of the president at dawn Wednesday, predicting Bush would end up with 286 electoral votes - well above the 270 needed - as well as "a margin of more than 3.5 million popular votes."

Bush, whose victory in Florida four years ago was a mere 537 votes, captured the state this time with a 370,000-vote lead over Kerry and moved within grasp of a second term with a persistent lead in Ohio of more than 140,000 votes.

The Kerry campaign had said at one point that it would not concede Ohio until all votes, including as many as 150,000 so-called provisional ballots, were counted. State election officials said those ballots, even the ones that eventually get counted at all, might not be recorded for 11 days.

"We're right back to 2000. The country is just divided right down the middle," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. "And there are a lot of lawyers in Ohio."

Also adding to the deja vu was concerns among the television networks that early exit polls they commissioned had indicated Kerry would do better than he fared as actual vote counts came in.

Before Kerry gave way to the hard electoral truth, he had turned to his trial-lawyer running mate, Sen. John Edwards, to show that Democrats weren't about to give in. "We will fight for every vote," Edwards told supporters gathered in Boston in a predawn chilly rain.

With straggling votes still being counted in a handful of other states, including Iowa and New Mexico, neither Bush nor Kerry could assemble the 270 electoral votes needed for victory without Ohio.

But Kerry couldn't win without Ohio, and his chance of recouping enough votes from the provisional ballots was very slim.

In the confusion in 2000, Gore telephoned the then-Texas governor Bush to concede the election ahead of a formal concession speech. Once he learned the state was a tossup, he dialed Bush back to say, "Circumstances have changed." This year, there was no concession, no calls from one candidate to the other.

Kerry never materialized at Boston's Copley Square, where thousands of his supporters waiting for a victory celebration eventually left.

Card told Bush supporters that the president's lead in Ohio was "statistically insurmountable," yet Bush chose to give Kerry "the respect of more time to reflect on the results of this election" before going public himself.

The uncertainty for a time from Tuesday night until well into Wednesday had denied what many in both parties hoped this election would restore: a clear Election Day winner, and with it a sense of closure, and a beginning of the healing process.

Instead, it threatened to extend the atmosphere of bitter partisanship, coming after one of the nastiest election campaigns in decades and as Republicans increased their numbers in Congress and knocked off Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

"Bush is going to feel vindicated for having taken what were really big risks in places like Iraq and in terms of his fiscal policy," said Bruce Buchanan, a political science professor and longtime Bush watcher at the University of Texas.

But, Buchanan said, "Unless he addresses this polarization problem, his second term is going to be a bitter and unhappy experience."

Republican strategists credited get-out the vote drives - the most intensive ground war ever for Republicans - for Bush's successes in closely contested states.

Energizing the base appeared to have a bigger payoff than going after independents and what Bush called "discerning Democrats," although the president did both in the closing days of the campaign.

Exit polls suggested that, among those making up their minds in the final week before the election, most went to Kerry.

Even so, as those in both parties had predicted, both Bush and Kerry scored easy wins in all the states where they had been heavily favored, meaning that once again the fate of the presidency rested with a handful of battleground states.

EDITOR'S NOTE - Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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