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.

Eleven gubernatorial contests were decided Tuesday, along with legislatures that will wield wide influence in next year's congressional redistricting.

But it was the race between the son of a former president and the son of a former senator that captured the attention of voters who had often ignored politics during recent years of relative peace and ongoing prosperity.

Bush, 54, just six years into his first political job, promised to end the Clinton-Gore ``season of cynicism,'' cut taxes, improve schools, build up the military and reshape Social Security. Benefiting from family connections and Texas-sized expectations, Bush raised a record-shattering $103 million as he settled a score as well as reach the political pinnacle: Clinton-Gore swept his father from office in 1993.

America has had father-and-son presidents only once before: John Adams (1797-1801) and John Quincy Adams (1825-1829).

In TV ads and on the campaign trail, Bush said Gore couldn't be trusted. Gore, 52, said Bush didn't have the experience to be president. The Texas governor countered by tapping his father's defense secretary Dick Cheney, a Washington veteran, as running mate.

Gore chose Lieberman, the first Jewish candidate on a major national ticket, and a voice of moral authority during the Bill Clinton impeachment period.

Green Party candidate Ralph Nader threatened Gore's base in half-a-dozen states, appealing to liberals and independents. Under pressure from some Democratic liberals to back off, Nader countered: ``The only wasted vote is for someone you don't believe in.''

His goal was to get 5 percent or more to qualify his party for federal money for the next election, a a level he apparently failed to receive. Pat Buchanan, the Reform Party candidate, faded badly.

Democrat Ruth Ann Minner won the Delaware governor's race, keeping the seat in Democratic hands.

Along with the governors races, about 200 legislative contests could settle the balance of power in 20 states and determine which party controls the redrawing of political districts for the next decade.

In a burst of direct democracy, 42 state ballots offered 204 citizen initiatives and referendums from legislatures.

Up and down the ballot, nearly $3 billion was spent on this year's elections. Outside interest groups spent about $400 million on TV ads alone, a figure certain to renew calls for campaign finance changes.

It was a rollercoaster presidential race.

Both Bush and Gore promised a new tone to follow the Clinton years. The vice president campaigned as ``my own man,'' wary of voter discontent after Clinton's sexual episode with an intern led to partisan turmoil and impeachment. He said he was best suited to continue the economic expansion of the Clinton years while Bush dismissed Democratic accomplishments and offered broad tax cuts and Social Security reform.

After six years of divided government, Bush promised to end gridlock, and he kept a public distance from a Republican Congress that is relatively unpopular with voters. Democratic congressional leaders worked independently of Gore in their fight for control of one or both chambers.

After tough nominating fights, Bush soared to a double-digit lead over Gore in polls in the late spring and early summer, but Gore rebounded with a successful Democratic convention.

Though both are Ivy League-trained baby boomers, the candidates took two different paths to the election. Bush got a late start in politics, and quickly made up for lost time. Gore prepared all his life for this role, yet sometimes seemed less than comfortable playing it.

In 1997, with only three years as Texas governor, Bush raised a record-sized warchest that scared away several challengers and found himself at the top of polls of potential 2000 GOP candidates. He delayed a decision on whether to run while quietly building support from a network of GOP leaders across the country who visited Bush in Austin.

The Texas governor hammered out a simple platform and rarely wavered from it: tie accountability to federal school aid, build a missile-defense system and improve troop morale, cut taxes across the board, allow people to invest Social Security payroll taxes in the stock market and restore ``honor and integrity'' to the White House - the last a not-too-subtle reminder of Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky and his impeachment in the House.

Arizona Sen. John McCain caught Bush off balance, handing him primary defeats in New Hampshire and Michigan. McCain's criticism of Bush's massive tax-cut plan would be echoed months later by Gore.

Bush was able to regain his footing, relying on the might of a GOP establishment already invested in his race and the fervor of conservative voters he courted in states like South Carolina.

As for Gore, he served as a Tennessee congressman and followed his father to the Senate. When, at just 39, he ran for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination his inexperience showed and he lost badly.

He sat out the presidential primaries in 1992 following an accident that hospitalized his son, and then accepted Clinton's invitation to be his running mate. Over eight years, Gore proved one of the nation's most influential vice presidents and had Clinton's blessing for the 2000 campaign.

Still, former senator and pro-basketball hero Bill Bradley mounted a vigorous challenge for the nomination, asking the same questions about Gore's truthfulness that Bush asks today.

Before righting his campaign in Iowa this year, a worried Gore moved his campaign headquarters from Washington to Tennessee. He changed his style - earth tones, not business suits; hand-held microphones, not lecterns. He was prone to exaggerate in political settings and left some voters uneasy.

Until the end, polls showed people considered Gore more prepared, Bush more likable.

Gore's message shifted, too, as he muted his signature environmentalism and stout support for abortion rights in favor of a populist ``I'll-fight-for-you'' plea that closed his campaign.

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