It was a fitting finale of tumult and tension for two men who spent eight months and $240 million on the campaign trail, only to finish a few thousand votes apart in a single pivotal state.
If Gore's lead in the national popular vote held, Bush would be the fourth man in history - the first in more than a century - to win the presidency despite coming in second in popular votes.
He was looking ahead to his transition to power, preparing to announce key roles in his administration for retired Gen. Colin Powell and former Transportation Secretary Andy Card.
``It's going to be resolved in a quick way,'' Bush said of the Florida recount set to be finished Thursday. Joined by running mate Dick Cheney in Austin, Texas, he added: ``I'm confident that the secretary and I will be president-elect and vice president-elect.''
Florida was a state of chaos, its 25 electoral votes the margin of victory as both Bush and Gore were agonizingly close to the 270 required. The AP tally showed Bush leading by fewer than 1,700 popular votes out of 6 million cast in the state.
Nationally, Gore was ahead in the popular vote, but the president is picked based on electoral vote totals.
After a long night of suspense, the vice president slept late but planned a statement to declare his confidence of victory ``if the recount is handled in a fair and honest way,'' spokesman Mark Fabiani said. Democrats privately said they worried about the objectivity of Florida's secretary of state, Republican Katherine Harris.
Soon after Harris ordered the recount, lawyers for both candidates flocked to the state, led by two former secretaries of state - Warren Christopher for Gore and James A. Baker III for Bush.
The next president, no matter who he may be, faces a Congress that will be divided more deeply than ever by modest Democratic gains.
Voters spoke as if from two worlds - men versus women, parents versus singles, city dwellers versus rural Americans, whites versus minorities - casting distinctly different visions for America and denying the presidential victor any claim of a mandate.
Republicans retained control of the Senate, but lost seats and could be stuck with the smallest possible majority. They lost seats in the House, too, and will cling to a razor-thin advantage.
``It won't be easy for whoever is president,'' said Republican strategist Scott Reed.
History was made below the presidential line on the ballot, too. First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton won a New York Senate seat. Republican Sen. John Ashcroft lost to Missouri's Democratic governor who died in an October plane crash; the governor's widow, Jean Carnahan, is in line for an appointment to the seat.
Ever confident, Bush made several tentative decisions about his presidency before the race concluded. Aides said he would soon put them in place.
Presuming victory, aides said Powell will be nominated to be secretary of state, with an announcement planned within the week. Condoleezza Rice will be national security adviser, putting two blacks from Bush's father's national security team in prominent posts.
Reaching out to Gore supporters, Bush said, ``I will work hard to earn their confidence. America has a long tradition of uniting once elections are over. Secretary Cheney and I will do everything in our power to unite the nation to bring people together after one of the most exciting elections in our nation's history.''
A cornerstone of Bush's campaign was his pledge to bring civility and bipartisanship to Washington, a task made all the more important by Tuesday's elections that narrowed GOP margins in Congress. Bush called the election a shining example of ``the strength of our democracy.''
Gore, too, has given thought to his transition. Aides said the vice president's first decision would be what to do with campaign chairman William Daley, a natural for transition director or White House chief of staff.
Seeming less confident than Bush, advisers also were considering Gore's options if the Florida recount went against him. Some said privately he would be wise to quickly concede with a statesmanlike speech that, coupled with his popular-vote advantage, would position Gore as the Democratic front-runner in 2004.
Asked if Gore would challenge a recount favoring Bush, Daley said, ``I doubt it.'' He said the vice president would let the recount process play out and ``we'll move on.''
Americans cast more than 101 million votes, the second most in history behind the 104 million of 1992. But the race came down to one state - Florida - and a few thousand people.
By late Wednesday, Bush had won 29 states for 246 electoral votes. Gore had won 18 states plus the District of Columbia for 255. New Mexico and Oregon were too close to call, but wouldn't make a difference.
With all precincts reporting unofficial results, Gore had 48,591,357 votes and Bush had 48,421,815 votes - with just 169,542 votes separating them. Only three times before had a presidential candidate lost the popular vote but won the Electoral College, the last time in 1888 when Benjamin Harrison defeated Grover Cleveland.
``I always felt that my vote didn't matter. Now I know I do count,'' said Dottie Condrey of Nashville, Tenn., a waitress who said she was kicking herself for not voting. Turnout estimates were higher than in 1996, lower than 1992.
Gore conceded defeat Tuesday night in a telephone call to Bush, but called a second time to take it back after more results rolled in from Florida. The second call was awkward: Bush asked Gore to clarify why he was making the call, and the vice president accused Bush of being ``snippy,'' according to accounts from both sides.
Green Party insurgent Ralph Nader failed to get enough votes to qualify for federal funding in 2004, but he took enough - presumably from Gore - to emerge as the possible spoiler.
Unrepentant, the consumer advocate said Wednesday he had transformed the party into a ``long-term, progressive reform movement'' that would monitor the Democrats and Republicans for years to come.