Bush on Brink, Kerry Wobbles: Why-o? Ohio!

In the first wartime election in a generation, President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts battled each other long into the night, with the results still in the balance as the morning after arrived in New York.

At press time, Mr. Bush had 51 percent of the vote and 197 electoral votes, according to several network projections, while Mr. Kerry had 48 percent and 188 electoral votes. As midnight approached in New York, a tense political drama was being played out in Ohio and Florida, where the final result very likely would be decided. Mr. Kerry won the battleground state of Pennsylvania, but needed a win in either Ohio or Florida. But as the night wore on, Mr. Bush held onto a lead in both states.

With the vote count underway, thousands of election-law lawyers were poised to reprise the role they played in 2000, when recounts in Florida dragged on for more than a month before the U.S. Supreme Court ended the drama and handed the Presidency to Mr. Bush.

A record 120 million Americans went to the polls this year. Only about 51 percent of eligible voters went to the polls four years ago.

The long shadow of 9/11 was evident in this first Presidential election since the terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in downtown Manhattan three years ago. Mr. Bush’s decision to attack Iraq last year as part of his war on terrorism clearly cost him public support, allowing Mr. Kerry to come within striking distance as the campaign reached its frenzied climax.

Locally, New Yorkers overwhelmingly voted to send Charles Schumer back to the U.S. Senate for a second six-year term. Mr. Schumer, who raised some $25 million for what proved to be a mere token campaign, now may turn his attention north to Albany. He has declined to rule out a gubernatorial bid in 2006, when incumbent George Pataki is expected to pass on the chance to run for a fourth term.

The race nationally was just as close and tense as many observers, with fresh memories of the debacle of 2000, expected.

Mr. Kerry’s supporters were optimistic in mid-afternoon, as political insiders and journalists were buzzing with talk that Mr. Kerry was ahead in exit polls from several key battleground states. That speculation reached a fever pitch as polls began to close in the Northeast and prominent Republicans like former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani appeared subdued on national television, openly speaking about the possibility of a Kerry victory.

As the night wore on, however, Mr. Bush’s prospects brightened considerably as several states holding the key to this election began to tilt in his direction. As the polls were closing in several eastern states, Republicans gathered at Michael’s in midtown for a party hosted by Kellyanne Conway and her husband, George Conway III. The party’s hostess, Mrs. Conway, said, “We’re feeling pretty good,” pointing to the close race in Ohio. A couple of hours later, Peggy Noonan echoed Mrs. Conway’s sentiments, noting that Mr. Bush was polling well among Ohio voters who said they believed Mr. Bush was a strong leader.

Democratic optimism, which burned brightly through the afternoon and early evening, was snuffed out as reports from the battleground states filtered in.

Although Mr. Bush seemed to run out of gas as the race finished, he never trailed in most national polls, even after a less-than-impressive performance in the three debates with Mr. Kerry. Less than two months ago, after the Republicans staged a highly successful convention in New York, Mr. Kerry seemed all but finished. Wounded by attacks on his war record, unable to stir the kind of excitement Bill Clinton inspired in his 1992 challenge to the elder Mr. Bush, Mr. Kerry was unable to gain much ground on the President through the early fall. When late-September polls showed Mr. Kerry deadlocked with Mr. Bush in New Jersey-a state which Al Gore won by 16 points four years ago-some Democrats feared the worst.

While those fears would not be realized- Mr. Kerry won handily in the Garden State-it was an indication that the challenger was having trouble catching on with the Democratic base, despite its antipathy for Mr. Bush.

Long lines and occasional confusion were the order of the day in many New York polling places. While many states continue the trend towards high-tech voting machines, New York clings to the electoral equivalent of hated Fenway Park, all curtains and levers and one big handle. Artist Julian Schnabel, trailed by his two kids, emerged from the voting booth at P.S. 3 in the West Village at 8:15 a.m. with a quizzical look on his face, shrugging his shoulders. “No, no,” roared an election official. “You’ve got to pull [the handle] all the way down!”

A Fight for the Ages

On the eve of one of the most bitter and most divisive elections in memory, Mr. Kerry donned a Red Sox cap-obviously writing off red state Missouri, home of the St. Louis Cardinals-and seemed a good deal more comfortable than many of his anxious supporters. Mr. Bush wrapped up his campaign with a noontime rally in Columbus, Ohio, on Election Day. He monitored returns in the White House.

Few incumbents in American history have had to fight so hard for re-election, and often those who have, like Mr. Bush’s father, fought in vain. Most elected Presidents in the last 100 years either won another term easily (Franklin Roosevelt in 1936, ’40 and ’44, Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, Richard Nixon in 1972, Ronald Reagan in 1984 and Bill Clinton in 1996), or lost decisively (William Howard Taft in 1912, Herbert Hoover in 1932, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992). The last time an incumbent President won re-election in a closely contested race was 1948, when Harry Truman stunned Thomas Dewey of New York in a four-way race. Truman won with 49 percent of the popular vote and took 303 electoral votes to Dewey’s 189. Incumbent Woodrow Wilson also won in a comparative squeaker over Charles Evans Hughes in 1916, taking 277 electoral votes to Hughes’ 254.

Mr. Bush, though no historian, certainly was familiar with one-term presidencies. He never forgot that his father had been turned out of office a dozen years ago and was determined to avoid the same fate. Like his father, Mr. Bush enjoyed high approval ratings after a successful military engagement in the Persian Gulf. But, like his father, he saw his popularity nose-dive even as his campaign prepared to capitalize on his fleeting approval ratings.

If history inspired bitter memories for Mr. Bush, it offered hope to Mr. Kerry. Twice in the last year he had been more or less written off, just as he was considered a sure loser in his Senate campaign against Mr. Weld in 1996. Back then, faced with what surely would have been the end of a promising political career, Mr. Kerry plodded on, and wound up beating the popular Republican governor.

This time around, Mr. Kerry was left for dead in both the primaries and the general election. A year ago, Mr. Kerry’s campaign was listless and seemingly headed for an early exit. It was Howard Dean, a former governor of Vermont and political unknown, who stole the early headlines and seemed poised for all-important early victories in Iowa and New Hampshire. Mr. Kerry barely merited a mention among the first-tier candidates.

Then came Iowa, and then came New Hampshire-two unexpected victories, and suddenly Mr. Kerry was the front-runner. He wrapped up the nomination with a string of victories in March that foreshadowed his favorite baseball team’s march to glory from the brink of oblivion.

Still, Mr. Kerry almost seemed a spectator as events unfolded over the summer. Mr. Bush remained ahead in the polls, despite continued unrest in Iraq, terrorism fears and a sputtering economy. By a stroke of luck, the Senator from Massachusetts accepted his party’s Presidential nomination in Boston, but he emerged from the Democratic National Convention with little additional bounce and hardly any movement in the polls. Before long, Mr. Kerry was fending off challenges to his war record from a group calling itself the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which asserted that he was not the war hero his citations and medals would suggest he was.

In the meantime, Mr. Bush accepted re-nomination at the first-ever Republican convention in New York. This time the setting was no accident; the G.O.P. chose this city in a gesture of solidarity after the destruction of the World Trade Center. The convention, on the eve of the third anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, was filled with overt and symbolic references to that terrible day, and to Mr. Bush’s leadership in the aftermath of the attacks. Prominent moderate Republicans like former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Governor George Pataki gave high-profile speeches praising the President’s strong stand against terrorism.

Unlike the Democratic convention, the Republican show was a success. Mr. Bush’s approval ratings moved north, and so did his lead over Mr. Kerry. Labor Day had come and gone, and the momentum clearly was with the President. For all the talk about how conventions no longer matter, they certainly did in 2004. Mr. Kerry needed his to inspire the faithful and persuade the undecided. He failed. Mr. Bush needed his to remind voters of how they felt about him in the days after 9/11 and to rally around him once again, despite qualms over Iraq and the economy. He succeeded. Polls showed him with leads in most of the key battleground states.

Not for the first time, John Kerry seemed on his way to oblivion. Then came yet another turning point: Mr. Kerry’s first debate with the President. The challenger was focused and sharp; the President gave probably the worst performance by an incumbent since the debates became a regular feature of the campaign season in 1976. Suddenly, it was a race again.

(With additional reporting by Ben Smith, Lizzie Ratner and Marcus Baram)