The outcome of the race between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore hung on an incomplete vote count Wednesday in Florida, where only a few thousand votes separated the two candidates out of 95 million cast across America.
The outcome--or lack of one--left the nation wondering who would succeed Bill Clinton on Jan. 20 and raised the prospect that the question would be unanswered for days.
Gore himself thought he had lost when the broadcast networks projected Bush the winner in Florida--and thus the nation.
The vice president telephoned his congratulations to the Texas governor.
Then he called again and took his concession back.
"There's never been a night like this one," Gore campaign chairman William Daley said at Gore headquarters in Nashville, Tenn. "This race is simply too close to call."
Standing in the rain, the Nashville crowd chanted, "Recount!"
The Associated Press count showed Bush leading by less than 1,700 votes in Florida, and both the Bush and Gore campaigns were sending teams of lawyers to the state Wednesday to keep an eye on the recount. A formal canvass of the Florida ballots could take 10 days.
The election stacked up as the closest race since John F. Kennedy defeated Richard M. Nixon in 1960 by 118,574 votes, a contest whose outcome was also uncertain until the day after the voting.
Bush and Gore were both in reach of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency. As dawn broke in the East, Bush has won 29 states for 246 electoral votes. Gore has won 18 states plus the District of Columbia for 255.
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 potential spoiler to the vice president.
The congressional race was narrow as well. Before the election, Congress was Republican but closely divided, and it emerged Republican and even more closely divided following Tuesday's voting.
Republicans picked up six Democratic House seats in scattered states, enough to renew their hold for two more years. But their majority shrank when they gave back eight other seats elsewhere, including four in California.
"We figured it was going to be close," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.--and it was.
With winners declared in 33 of the 34 races at stake, Republicans will have at least a 50-48 margin in the Senate. Too close to call was the race in Washington state, where former Rep. Maria Cantwell was challenging incumbent Republican Sen. Slade Gorton.
Voters ousted Sen. William V. Roth of Delaware, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and father of the tax-saving Roth IRA, as well as four Republicans and Democrat Chuck Robb of Virginia
Missourians rejected Republican Sen. John Ashcroft, electing instead their dead governor, Mel Carnahan, killed three weeks ago in a plane crash. His successor has pledged to appoint widow Jean Carnahan, who told supporters, "I pledge to you, rather, let's pledge to each other, never let the fire go out."
In New York, Hillary Rodham Clinton became the first president's wife to win a Senate seat. When word of his wife's victory came in, President Clinton was on the telephone in their hotel suite, talking to a personality named Billy T on Las Vegas radio station KCEP, trying to nudge Westerners to the polls.
Clinton told Billy T he was the first president in history to have a wife in the Senate, "and I like it."
Across the nation, with 98 percent of the votes counted, Bush and running mate Dick Cheney had 48 percent to 48 percent for Gore and his running mate, Joseph Lieberman, who was bidding to become the first Jewish vice president. The Gore-Lieberman ticket held a slim lead in the popular vote.
Regardless of the outcome of the presidential race, Lieberman was guaranteed a job next year. He easily won re-election to the Senate from his home state of Connecticut. If the Democrats win the White House, he would be replaced by a Republican appointed by the state's GOP governor.
Bush, whose father, President George H.W. Bush, was defeated by Clinton in 1992, had the satisfaction of carrying both Clinton's and Gore's home states of Arkansas and Tennessee.
And Gore, aides said, went to bed.
Voter turnout was higher than expected, a notch above 1996, when fewer than half of the adult population cast ballots. On Tuesday, between 52 percent and 53 percent voted, estimated one turnout expert, Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.
"It's kind of neat to be that important," said Barbara Garwood, 50, in Orlando, Fla., who voted for Bush. She made that comment at a time it appeared that Florida had delivered victory to Bush.
Some voters saw the election as a referendum on Clinton's stewardship.
"I don't want another eight years of the kind of administration we've had," said David Fair, a Knoxville, Tenn., who voted for Bush. "I feel our country has become less moral."
But Gordy Janisse, 48, a custodian in St. Clair Shores, Mich., pointed to the economy to explain his vote for Gore. "Why try to fix something that's not broke?" he asked. "It's common sense."
Exit polls showed that voters who cared most about taxes and world affairs supported Bush, while those most concerned about Medicare, prescription drugs, Social Security, the economy and education favored Gore.
Bush was the solid favorite among men and white voters and the wealthy, while Gore won among women, blacks, Hispanics and those earning below $30,000 a year, according to the exit interviews, which were conducted by Voter News Service, a consortium of The Associated Press and the major television networks.
Nader won just 3 percent of the national vote. That was good enough to potentially tip several states to Bush--Florida among them.
But Nader fell short of the 5 percent of the national vote to qualify his party for federal campaign funds in the 2004 elections. Still, Nader said he was far from disappointed: "We're in it for the long run."
"You can't spoil a system spoiled to the core," he told a standing-room crowd in the ballroom of the National Press Club in Washington, answering the charge that his candidacy had cost Gore the race.
About half of Nader voters said in exit polls they would have voted for Gore in a two-way race; about 30 percent said they simply would not have voted without Nader in the race.
"I voted for Nader because I didn't like any of the other candidates," said Melissa Larson, 22, a student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. "I'd rather have Gore [than Bush], but I couldn't bring myself to vote for him."
The Reform Party's candidate, Pat Buchanan, reduced to an asterisk, barely registered.
Clinton's scandals may have hurt Gore. About two thirds of voters said in exit polls that Clinton would be more remembered for scandal than for his leadership. Those who considered the scandals as important tended to vote for Bush, the polls said.