Race for the White House winds down in frantic moments

BY admin

November 02 2004 12:00 AM ET

President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry reached for the finish line in the presidential campaign, each claiming Monday to be the strong, steady leader needed in a time of terrorism. "The world is watching," said the Democratic challenger in a race that defied safe prediction. "This election comes down to who do you trust," Bush said Monday as Air Force One carried him to a half-dozen states on a final full day of campaigning before Tuesday's national election.

By election eve, uncounted millions of Americans had voted early in 32 states, including more than 1.8 million in Florida alone. Both campaigns primed Election Day turnout programs for Tuesday in battleground states from New Hampshire to Nevada.

Democrats, claiming Republicans were seeking to discourage minority voters, won a pair of court rulings Monday in Ohio that barred party representatives from challenging voters at their polling places. Republican lawyers quickly appealed. The war on terror aside, there were fresh reminders of the election's stakes. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, 80 years of age and the cornerstone of a conservative Supreme Court, disclosed Monday that he will miss court duty because he is undergoing radiation and chemotherapy for his thyroid cancer. Such treatment is a sign that he has a potentially grave form of the disease.

After nearly eight months of head-to-head campaigning between the president and the Massachusetts senator, the final preelection polls turned up tied at 49% in one CNN-USA Today-Gallup survey, with Ralph Nader at 1%. Tight surveys in Florida as well as Ohio and other Midwestern states added to the uncertainty of the competition for 270 electoral votes.

Each state is awarded a certain number of electoral votes relative to their population, and in all but two states, whoever wins the most votes captures all of that state's electoral votes. The top three prizes among battleground states are Florida, with 27 electoral votes, Pennsylvania with 21, and Ohio with 20. With America divided, Democrats needed ticket splitters to help them to gain seats in Congress. Only nine of 34 Senate races nationwide appeared competitive, seven of them in states where Kerry has not seriously contested Bush.

Texas, the president's home state, figured to have an outsize influence on the battle for the House. There, five Democratic incumbents, with 82 years seniority combined, faced difficult challenges as the result of Republican-engineered redistricting.

Kerry made six stops in four states on Monday--two each in Ohio and Wisconsin--pledging to be an advocate for the middle class and those struggling to join it. "I've heard your struggles. I share your hopes. And together, tomorrow we have a chance to make a difference," he said, casting Bush as a friend of the rich and powerful.

In Florida, Kerry said he stood ready to assume national command in a time of terrorism. "I believe we can bring the world back to the side of America. I believe that we can regain America's respect and influence in the world, and I believe we deserve a president who knows how to fight a more effective war on terror and make America safe," he said.

In Iowa several hours later, he pledged a "fresh start to Iraq." "I know what we need to do, and so do you. It is inexcusable that American troops have been sent to war without the armor they need, without the number of troops that they need, without the ability to have allies at their side, making America stronger. This president rushed to war without a plan to win the peace, and we need a commander in chief who knows how to get the job done."

Bush campaigned across five states before heading home to vote on Election Day. At one point the two men and their entourages nearly crossed paths, the president preparing to leave Milwaukee aboard Air Force One in the early afternoon as Kerry's chartered jet was arriving. "There have been some tough times in Ohio," Bush conceded as he began his day in a state that has lost 232,000 jobs since he took office. But he said the state has 5,500 new jobs since last month, adding, "We are moving in the right direction."

Curtis Gans, director of the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, estimated that as many as 117.5 million to 121 million voters would cast ballots, 58% to 60% of those eligible. The more the better, said the Democrats, knowing that Kerry couldn't win without carrying at least one state Bush claimed in 2000. They argued that get-out-the-vote operations financed by organized labor and other organizations would help them hold Pennsylvania, where Al Gore won in 2000, and take Ohio, where Bush won.

Republicans counted on their own nationwide effort to mobilize, particularly in small towns and distant suburbs where they hope the president's opposition to gay marriage, abortion, and gun control give him an opening with conservative Democrats. Thus, while Bush was struggling in Ohio, Kerry was forced to defend Michigan in the campaign's final hours, as well as Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Gore carried all four states in 2000.

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