By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
msnbc.com
BREAKING NEWS

Nov. 3, 2004 — The White House claimed victory in the presidential election Wednesday morning after President Bush won Ohio and Florida, two of the three battleground states that were keys to the race, according to projections by NBC News. Sen. John Kerry’s campaign was unwilling to concede, insisting that he would win Ohio’s 20 electoral votes when all the ballots were counted — which might not happen for almost two weeks.

White House chief of staff Andrew Card showed up unexpectedly at a gathering of Bush supporters in Washington shortly before 6 a.m. ET. “The president of the United States has won the state of Ohio,” he said. “... This all adds up to a convincing Electoral College victory.”

Card said Bush would make a statement later in the day.

Earlier, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, the Democratic vice presidential candidate, asserted that the Kerry campaign was conceding nothing. “We’ve waited four years for this victory. We can wait one more night,” he told cheering supporters in Boston.

The Kerry campaign said it would make no further statements until 10 a.m.

According to NBC News’ projections, Kerry won big states with large numbers of electoral votes, but Bush piled up victories in smaller states to edge to 269 electoral votes, clinching at least a tie in the Electoral College. Kerry had won 238 electoral votes, 32 short of the magic number, 270, the network projected. A handful of states were too close to call.

If the election were to end in a 269-to-269 tie — still a statistical possibility —  the presidency would be decided by the House of Representatives, where each state would get one vote. The Republicans currently control 30 state delegations, compared with 15 for the Democrats.

Dispute over Ohio
With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Bush led Kerry in Ohio by 51 percent to 49 percent. But the Kerry campaign was banking on provisional and absentee ballots, which were not included in that total, to reverse the margin. The combination could create a legal and political tangle reminiscent of the 36-day struggle over Florida four years ago.

Provisional ballots were issued to voters whose eligibility was challenged at the polls, a procedure the Republicans pursued avidly. In an eleventh-hour blow to Democrats, Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens declined Tuesday to overturn an appeals court order clearing the way for vote challengers to be present at polling places in Ohio, where Democrats claimed that Republicans were seeking to discourage minority voters.

Video: NBC’s call in Ohio

Bush led by about 136,000 votes. Card claimed that Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell had “informed us that this margin is insurmountable, even after provisional ballots are counted.”

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There was no immediate comment from Blackwell, who had told reporters shortly after midnight that, with as many as 175,000 provisional ballots having been cast — a number that also includes civilian and military ballots cast overseas — provisional ballots could not be counted before Nov. 13.

None had yet been assessed for their legitimacy. In 2000, when 100,000 provisional ballots were cast, about 90 percent were legitimate, Blackwell said. State law, meanwhile, allots 10 days for overseas ballots to trickle in.

“If it takes two hours, two days or two weeks, the result will be a good result that the voters of the state of Ohio will have confidence in,” Blackwell told reporters before Card spoke.

Jennifer Palmieri, a spokeswoman for Kerry in Ohio, said: “We think that is more than enough voters to win the state. Those votes have to be counted before we know who won the state.”

Meanwhile, there were also outstanding absentee ballots in at least 54 of the state’s 88 counties. And adding to the confusion is that Kerry can ask for a recount in any precinct — Ohio law, in fact, requires one if the final margin is one-quarter of 1 percentage point or less.

Election law specialists said either side could file lawsuits later Wednesday to try to get the best footing for evaluating and counting provisional ballots, and lawyers for Bush boarded a plane in Washington before dawn, bound for Ohio.

New Mexico, Iowa could clinch
As of 6:30 a.m. ET, NBC News projected that Bush would take Ohio and Florida, which decided the disputed 2000 election. He also won Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Virginia, Wyoming and his home state, Texas.

Video: ‘We can wait one more day’

Based on reported returns and data collected from voters as they left the polls, NBC News projected that Kerry would win California, the biggest prize of the night, with 55 electoral votes, as well as Pennsylvania. He also won Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and his home state, Massachusetts.

Returns were too close or too incomplete to support projecting a winner in Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Wisconsin, reflecting pre-election polls that were essentially tied.

Kerry had narrow leads in several of those states, but Bush was ahead in Nevada, 51 percent to 48 percent, with 99 percent of precincts reporting. Card claimed that Bush was the victor there, as well.

The president had also pulled ahead in Iowa by about 15,600 votes, with 99 percent of precincts reporting. But as many as 60,000 more absentee ballots could still be outstanding, NBC’s Natalie Allen reported from Iowa City.

Meanwhile, several thousand votes will not be counted for as long as another day and a half after optical scanning machines broke down in Green County. The manufacturer of the devices was expected to supply new machines later Wednesday morning so those counties could finish their vote counts.

Clean election seen; focus on Ohio
Assuming the president does win a second term, he will have done it this time with a victory in the popular vote, which he lost in 2000. With 98 percent of precincts reporting nationwide, Bush was polling 51 percent to Kerry’s 48 percent.

Independent candidate Ralph Nader, whom many Democrats blamed for Al Gore’s Electoral College defeat to Bush in 2000, was a non-factor this time around. He was winning no more than 1 percent of the vote in a handful of states and had barely 385,000 votes nationwide.

Unusually large numbers of voters turned out in an election that was running much more smoothly than anticipated. Florida, the ugly stepchild of 2000, was largely a dream.

In the end, Ohio was the fulcrum, and exit polling data suggested that it was older voters and white evangelical Christians who clinched the deal for Bush. The president won 56 percent of the vote among voters ages 60 and older, and he took three-quarters of white evangelical voters, who made up 25 percent of the state’s electorate. 

Bush appeared to benefit in Florida from the gratitude of residents hit hard by hurricanes last summer. Eighty-seven percent of Floridians said in exit polls that they approved of how the federal government responded, and 54 percent of those voters backed Bush.

Bush also won 54 percent of Florida’s white vote, offsetting Kerry’s 87 percent-to-12 percent victory among the much smaller black vote.

Kerry was banking on younger voters, many of whom were casting their first ballots. In both Ohio and Florida, first-time voters made up 13 percent of the electorate, and they went heavily for the challenger — by 59 percent to 40 percent in Florida, and by 56 percent to 44 percent in Ohio. But the overall percentage of younger voters was essentially unchanged from 2000, dampening their impact on the Democratic totals.

With NBC’s David Gregory, Andrea Mitchell and Lisa Myers in Washington; Anne Thompson in Columbus, Ohio; Lester Holt in New York; Natalie Allen in Iowa City, Iowa; Josh Mankiewicz in Albuquerque, N.M.; and Felix Schein in Boston. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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