By Alex Johnson Reporter
msnbc.com

The presidential election remained undecided Wednesday morning, awaiting a recount of votes in Florida after a wild evening of dramatic reversals. Based on exit-polling data in Florida, the major television networks projected that George W. Bush would be the winner, only to reverse their call hours later. Because of the recount in Florida, Americans may not know for days who their next leader will be.

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Vice President Al Gore won important battleground states from Pennsylvania to California, but Bush piled up smaller victories in the South and the Midwest to leave the count in the Electoral College all but deadlocked until 2:25 a.m. ET, when NBC declared that Florida's 25 electoral votes had put Bush over the top.

For more than an hour and a half, Bush's supporters celebrated in Austin, Texas, while Gore's consoled one another in the rain in Nashville.

Then, at 4 a.m., NBC News retracted its projection that Bush had won, setting off wild celebrations in Tennessee. Shortly beforehand, Gore called Bush in Austin to withdraw the congratulations he had telephoned to the governor earlier.

Now the White House hangs on the result of an automatic recount of the votes in Florida, the winner of which will be sworn in as president at noon ET on Jan. 20.

Out of more than 5.9 million votes cast in Florida, only 1,831 separated the two men at 4 a.m. ET.

The Nader factor
Left unclear, perhaps never to be resolved, was the effect of the candidacy of Green Party presidential nominee Ralph Nader. The longtime consumer activist registered less than 5 percent support, but the votes he won might have been enough to turn the result to Gore in Florida and in other important states had Gore won them all.

Incredibly, the round of retractions in Florida by the major TV networks, made on the basis of their analysis of exit-polling data compiled by a consortium of news organizations of which NBC is a member, was the second of the evening.

The nail-biting drama of the extraordinary evening was first amplified when the consortium withdrew their earlier projections that Gore had won Florida at 10:31 p.m. ET.

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

"The networks called this thing awful early, but the people counting the votes are coming up with a different perspective, and so we're pretty darn upbeat about things," Bush 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.

Shortly after 4 a.m., Gore campaign chairman William Daley appeared on America's television screens to echo Bush's sentiments, this time on Gore's behalf.

Big states for Gore
So at 4:10 a.m. ET, Gore had 249 electoral votes to 246 for Bush, according to NBC's new projections. Two other states were undecided, Wisconsin and Oregon, but their results could not affect the final outcome.

Florida lent excruciating drama all evening. The state's polls closed at 7 p.m. ET, but NBC's Kerry Sanders reported that some people had been waiting in line to vote for up to three hours, and Gov. Jeb Bush — the presidential nominee's brother — declared that anybody still in line at 7 p.m. would be allowed to vote. Then the television networks, including NBC, awarded the state to Gore prematurely, only to snatch its 25 electoral votes away less than two hours later. Then, hours later, they turned the state over to Bush. Then they took it away.

The drama may not be over for a long time. A recount is automatic under state law, MSNBC.com's Tom Curry reported — and that is a process that conceivably could take until Dec. 18.

The fight for Congress
The battle for Congress remained almost as tight.

In the most closely watched Senate race in the country, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton defeated Republican Rep. Rick Lazio. The Democrats also picked up seats in Florida, Delaware, Minnesota and Washington but lost seats in Nevada and Virginia.

The Democrats needed at least five seats to regain control of the Senate, and their chances looked increasingly slim.

In the House, Republicans and Democrats traded several seats, but a host of races remained too close to call. Voters could be kept in suspense for several days as record numbers of absentee ballots are counted. The Democrats need a net gain of seven seats to capture the House.

Americans are also electing 11 governors, filling their state legislatures and settling 204 ballot issues in 42 states — ranging from legalizing marijuana in Alaska to fluoridating the water in San Antonio, Texas.

Who voted, and why
NBC's breakdown of the exit-polling data showed that Gore and Bush both built coalitions of voters from very different voting blocs.

Black voters comprised Gore's most enthusiastic supporters — fully 89 percent voted for the vice president. Hispanics, too, also voted overwhelmingly for Gore.

Bush ran most strongly among gun owners and voters who described themselves as religious conservatives, winning 61 percent and 78 percent of those groups respectively. The governor also won small majorities among men (52 percent), white voters (53 percent) and voters who make more than $75,000 a year.

But after a campaign in which both men hammered each other on the economy, no one question appeared to dominate voters' thinking.

About 1 in 5 voters — 21 percent — considered the economy the most important issue. By comparison, only slightly smaller proportions of voters identified education (17 percent), Social Security (16 percent) and taxes (15 percent) as most important.

Enormous turnout across nation
Snow hampered voters in parts of New Mexico and North Dakota, but NBC News correspondents at polling stations across the country reported higher-than-normal turnout in places as varied as New York City — where officials expected 70 percent of eligible voters to cast ballots — and Deerfield Beach, Fla., where 98 percent turnout was expected.

Turnout was so heavy in St. Louis that a circuit judge ordered the voting extended in the city at Democrats' request. But an appeals court later overruled him.

In California, the State Election Commission forecast 76 percent turnout Tuesday, the highest in 20 years. And in the Seattle metropolitan area, the projection was 84 percent turnout. "This is so much busier than we've ever seen it," Frank Keller, a supervisor at a Seattle polling station, told MSNBC Cable.

Conventional political wisdom has it that a higher turnout tends to help Democrats, but Republican strategists contend the key is really where the higher turnout occurs. If most of it is coming from suburbs, that should help Bush, they say.

Candidates wrap it up
Bush and Gore voted early and spent the day in their respective hometowns. Bush, voting in Austin a block from the Texas Governor's Mansion, said he was "calm about what the people are going to decide." But he also said he'd phoned his parents, the former president and first lady, and "they're nervous."

The vice president, for his part, campaigned through the night, ending with a predawn rally for "Get Out the Vote" workers in Tampa, Fla.

"This is the last official stop of Campaign 2000," Gore told several hundred cheering volunteers. "It's not an accident that it's here ... because Florida may very well be the state that decides the outcome of this election." He then headed home to cast his own vote at a small school in Carthage, Tenn.

Behind them was the most expensive election in history — $3 billion on presidential and congressional races — but one that failed to stir much excitement.

With peace and prosperity both at hand, the fight was chiefly over how to divide the spoils: in the big tax cuts Bush proposes or in shoring up Medicare, Social Security and education, as the vice president favors.

Nader had been expected to be a big factor, but his impact on Gore's vote appeared to be muted, and he conceded defeat shortly after 9 p.m. ET.

Right through Election Day, Nader kept up his appeals for supporters to "vote their conscience" whether or not they lived in states with close races between Gore and Bush.

At a news conference Tuesday in Philadelphia before he returned to Washington to await the results, the longtime consumer activist urged people to support a "viable third party" that would serve as a watchdog for Republicans and Democrats long after Election Day.

Nader was hoping to win 5 percent of the national vote, assuring the Green Party of federal financing in 2004.

MSNBC.com's Miguel Llanos and Jon Bonné contributed to this report.

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