NEW YORK, Nov. 8--Texas Gov. George W. Bush emerged the winner early Wednesday over Vice President Al Gore in the 2000 presidential contest, an extremely tight race that was one of the closest in decades.

Florida's 25 electoral votes put the Republican candidate over the top, giving him a total of 271, one more than the 270 needed to win the White House.Until then, the race had became a waiting game, with the outcome hinging on late returns from four states -- Florida, Iowa, Wisconsin and Oregon.

At one point, Bush led Democrat Gore 246-242 in the Electoral College tally, meaning Gore had to carry Florida and at least one of the other three states to win. Bush needed to win Florida or all three of the other states to clinch victory.

He did it when Florida was reported in his column shortly after 2 a.m. ET., making him the nation's 43rd chief executive.

The balloting Tuesday lived up to predictions and was as close as the pundits said it would be, as Gore stayed close by winning critical battleground states across the country, taking California, Michigan and Pennsylvania in a voter turnout that surpassed other recent elections.

The drama was heightened when the Associated Press and the major television networks, based on exit polls and other data, retracted their earlier projection that Gore had won Florida, one of the biggest prizes on the board.

Bush bitterly criticized those reports, saying absentee ballots and returns from areas of the state in the Central time zone had not been adequately taken into account.

"The networks are calling this a little early, but the people who are actually voting are having a different perspective," he said late Tuesday. With California and its 54 electoral votes - a quarter of the total - on Gore's side of the ledger, the contested Florida results took on enormous importance.

Most of the larger states went to the vice president. Gore won New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Illinois. Texas, Ohio and most of the Deep South and central states went to Bush, as did Tennessee - Gore's home state.

The GOP also managed to retain its fragile six-year hold on Congress on the first general election day of the 21st Century.

Former Virginia Gov. George Allen ousted Sen. Charles Robb from the Senate. Democrats gained seats in Florida where former Rep. Bill Nelson defeated Rep. Bill McCollum, a House impeachment prosecutor, and in Delaware where Gov. Tom Carper defeated Republican Sen. William Roth.

In New York, new resident Hillary Rodham Clinton won her senatorial contest and become the first first lady ever elected to such high office.

The poll by Voter News Service said that nationwide, a candidate's position on issues was more influential than his personal qualities, and about one in five voters didn't make up their minds until the last week. Many of those tipped toward Gore.

In the Senate, Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman easily won re-election, though he would have had to give up the seat if the Democratic presidential ticket had won. Republicans retained seats in Tennessee, Mississippi, Texas, Pennsylvania and Maine. Democrats held onto their Maryland and Massachusett. Democrats need a net gain of eight seats to regain control.

Democrat Jon Corzine's $50 million self-financed race in New Jersey ended successfuly and the Missouri battle between Republican Sen. John Ashcroft and the late Gov. Mel Carnahan ended with Carnahan winning. Carnahan's widow, Jean, said she would accept Gov. Roger Wilson's offer of a Senate appointment to replace her husband.

Bush, voting in Austin a block from the Texas Governor's Mansion, went out for dinner after proclaiming he was ``calm about what the people are going to decide.'' But he said he'd phoned his parents, the former president and first lady, and ``they're nervous.''

Gore voted at a school in Tennessee, where he'd first been elected to Congress a quarter century ago and where his father had been a senator before him. Tennessee is much more Republican now, and Gore lost his home state.

The presidential showdown apparently inspired a higher turnout, reversing the trend of recent elections. At a West Little Rock polling site, the line snaked through a church gymnasium and out into the parking lot. In Reisterstown, Md., attorney Paul Beckman said, ``I'd walk a mile to vote.''

Exit polls indicated Bush fared well among those who cared most about world affairs and taxes. Voters who cared most about Medicare and prescription drugs, Social Security, health care and the economy tended to favor Gore. Both candidates were seen as good for schools, an issue that traditionally has favored Democrats.

Individual considerations had an impact: Voters who cared most about a candidate's honesty favored Bush and those who wanted a president with experience mostly sided with Gore.

About one in four said reports that Bush had been arrested in 1976 for drunken driving was important to their vote. Nearly half of voters said Clinton ``scandals'' was an important reason for their choice.