Hanging in the balance in Ohio

Bush camp stands poised to claim victory and mandate over electorate just as divided as in 2000.

After Americans voted in extraordinary numbers in the 2004 election, President Bush and Democratic Sen. Kerry were locked in a tight battle for the White House with Ohio's 20 electoral votes playing the crucial role.

Both candidates won states they were expected to capture. With only Ohio, New Mexico and Iowa final results still to come, swaths of Republican red and patches of Democratic blue on the US electoral map painted a picture nearly identical to 2000 election results. Neither man had been able to win a state taken by the other party four years ago - except New Hampshire, which Kerry claimed.

As a result, the winner faces the daunting task of governing a nation that appears to be as politically polarized as it was four years ago.

The campaign was fought over the issues of Iraq, terrorism, and the economy. President Bush was seeking to avoid becoming the first war-time president to be defeated on Election Day - and to avoid the one-term status of his father, former President George H. W. Bush.

By 8:45 a.m. Wednesday, with 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House, Bush has captured 28 states with 254 electoral votes to Kerry's 19 states plus the District of Columbia, worth a total of 252 votes.

Among the remaining battleground states still to be decided are Iowa, Ohio, and New Mexico.

The results in Ohio are crucial. Without Ohio, Senator Kerry has no likely path to the White House, especially since Bush won the vote-rich state of Florida. Both NBC and Fox projected that President Bush would carry Ohio, but other major media outlets so far have refrained from calling a winner, although the White House says it is "convinced" of its victory.

But the Kerry campaign is not conceding the crucial state. Kerry-Edwards campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill released a statement saying, "The vote count in Ohio has not been completed. There are more than 250,000 remaining votes to be counted. We believe when they are, John Kerry will win Ohio."

Hours later, John Edwards ceded nothing when he addressed a crowd of Kerry supporters in Boston. "We will fight for every vote," he said. "We've waited four years for this victory. We can wait one more night."

But Bush was laying claim to Ohio's 20 electoral votes, despite Kerry's objections. "We will not base our decision on a concession," said Bush adviser Dan Bartlett.

Analysts suggest that Ohio may have to sort through up to hundreds of thousands of provisional votes, so the official outcome may not be known for some days.

Voter enthusiasm in Ohio was matched nationwide, where officials were predicting a turnout of between 117.5 million and 121 million people.

Such a turnout would be the greatest number of voters ever and could rival the 63.1 percent of the voting-age population that showed up to vote in 1960. In the 2000 election, some 105.4 million Americas voted - 51.2 percent of voting-age Americans. Bush clearly has won the popular vote, becoming the first president since his father in 1988 to capture more than 50 percent of votes cast. According to the Associated Press, the tally for Bush is 58,241,287, or 51 percent. According to the AP, Kerry took 48 percent of the vote: 54,691,010.

Republicans are poised to strengthen their control over Congress. Republicans took Senate seats previously held by Democrats in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. That assured them of at least 50 seats in the Senate that convenes Jan. 3. Democrats claimed a former GOP seat in Illinois, where rising Democratic star Barack Obama handily defeated conservative challenger Alan Keyes.

Republicans also earned a major symbolic victory in the Senate. The Democratic leader in the Senate, Tom Daschle, appears to have been defeated in a very tight race by former Rep. John Thune.

The current makeup of the Senate is 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats, and 1 Independent who votes with the Democrats. This year 34 Senate seats were up for election, of which 19 were held by Democrats, and 15 by Republicans.

Meanwhile, in the House of Representatives, Republicans seemed assured of expanding their majority. The broadcast networks projected the Republicans would retain control of the House. Early Wednesday, Republicans had won 207 seats and were leading in 22 others. Control of the House requires 218 seats.

According to the authoritative Cook Political Report, only 36 seats were competitive in this election.

Reform-party candidate Ralph Nader appears to have played a much smaller role in the 2004 election than he did in 2000. Mr. Nader was drawing about 0.5 percent of the vote in Florida versus about 2 percent in 2000.

Nader explained this year's results by saying to Fox News Channel, "The system is rigged against competition. If nature operated this way, seeds wouldn't be allowed to sprout." Nader was on the ballot in 34 states this year, including some battleground states where his presence might tip the balance if the races in those states is close.

Material from the Associated Press and Reuters was used in this report.

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