WASHINGTON, Nov. 3 (UPI) -- U.S. President George W. Bush was on course early Wednesday for four more years in the White House at the end of a cliffhanger campaign and a long Tuesday invigorated by the largest turnout of U.S. voters in history.
But his majority might not be large enough to overcome the rash of provisional ballots and legal challenges by disappointed Democrats, who had been convinced the massive turnout would help their nominee, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.
The prospect loomed of another prolonged and divisive aftermath in the courts. Thousands of lawyers working for both parties stood by to file lawsuits in all the battleground states, as the final result came down to the closest of the battlegrounds -- Ohio and Florida. And in both states, lawyers hovered over 5 million punch-card ballots in Ohio and the tens of thousands of questionable absentee ballots in Florida.
After one of the closest and most divisive election campaigns in memory, Bush looked set narrowly to hold Ohio, fending off the grim prospect of yet another one-term presidency that had haunted the Bush family since his father's defeat in 1992. The Republicans were also poised to hold the House of Representatives and to increase their narrow majority in the Senate.
Around the world, political leaders alarmed by the Iraq war and the "with us or against us" foreign policy of the Bush administration waited for the final figures but began to brace for four more years of controversial leadership from the Bush team.
As the prospect increased of a Bush victory, the composition of his new team became a hot topic of speculation at diplomatic receptions in Washington Tuesday night. Most assumed that U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was unlikely to stay in office and that some of the most prominent of the neo-conservatives in the Pentagon and White House would be replaced. But the precise character of a second Bush administration was in the future as Americans began to reckon with the prospect of another four Bush years.
An estimated 120 million people voted, 14 million more than four years ago, in the first presidential election since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that had plunged the country into a new kind of war. But voters told reporters as they left the voting booths that other factors aside from the war, ranging from concern about the economy, jobs and healthcare to social issues such as same-sex marriage and stem-cell research, were also important as they considered their votes. Exit polls found 54 percent of voters maintaining that the economy was "not in good shape."
Iraq was the most divisive issue of all. Among Kerry voters, more than 80 percent told exit pollsters they thought the invasion of Iraq had been a mistake; among Bush voters, 12 percent thought so. And many of the younger voters told exit pollsters they were concerned about the prospect of the return of conscription after rumors of a new military draft.
And yet, just like four years ago, the image persisted of a country closely divided, with the West Coast, the East Coast north of the Potomac and the Great Lakes industrial states all tending Democratic and the rest trending Republican. The continuity was very strong. Even when results had been called in 30 of the states, not a single state had changed hands from the result of four years ago.
Early exit polls had pointed to a strong Democratic lead, an impression reinforced by the unusually strong turnout of voters. But as the count came down to states and counties, the Republican machine began to grind out a steady improvement on the Bush vote of the election four years ago, and the swollen turnout was clearly benefiting both sides evenly.
The high turnout reflected the most expensive election campaign ever, with the two parties spending $3.9 billion between them, and one of the most energetic and dedicated by the two top candidates.
"We'll both of us be able to say we campaigned as hard as we possibly could," Bush said during a final burst of campaigning in Ohio that saw the president visit a Republican phone bank, pick up a phone and start to call for votes -- and try to persuade the people answering the phone that it was truly him.
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