Opening a wild final chapter on a campaign that could hardly have been much closer, a recount of votes in Florida has thrown the outcome of the presidential race into doubt.
Though he had been declared the loser by television networks, including ABC, Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore refused to concede defeat as he inched within fewer than 1,000 votes of Bush in Florida.
As results from late-reporting precincts came in early this morning, ABCNEWS projected Bush would win Florida — putting the Republican over the top with 271 electoral votes, one more than he needed to win election as the 43rd president of the United States.
‘Too Close to Call’
But as the Gore campaign realized the margin of victory would be less than one-half of 1 percent of the popular vote, small enough to trigger an automatic recount, plans for a concession were shelved. (See related story about the recount.) With Florida and Oregon remaining too close to call this morning, Gore held 260 of the 270 votes needed to win the Electoral College. Bush held 246.
Both candidates are getting some rest now, their campaigns said.
“Without being certain of the results in Florida, we simply cannot be certain of the results of this national election,” Gore campaign chairman William Daley told wildly cheering Gore supporters in Nashville, Tenn. “This race is simply too close to call, and until the results — the recount is concluded and the results in Florida become official, our campaign continues.”
Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth, who also serves as Gore’s campaign chairman in the state, said a recount would be called and pledged that it would “not take that long.” Butterworth said the recount could begin today and be completed as early as tomorrow, but other Democratic Party officials said the recount could take up to two weeks.
Lawyer Warren Christopher, a former Clinton secretary of state who also headed Gore’s vice-presidential search effort, is flying to Nashville and will head the vote-counting effort for the Gore campaign in Florida.
Several thousand Florida votes are under scrutiny because of ballot irregularities, including the possibility that some voters may have inadvertently marked their ballots for Pat Buchanan when they meant to go for Bush or Gore. (See related story.)
“We owe it to the country to make sure that the appropriate person won the popular vote,” Butterworth said.
Both campaigns tried to spin the current results as positively as they could. But reporters on the ground said Bush campaign operatives were confused, angry and somewhat puzzled after a night which saw defeat, victory and then finally mystery.
“The only thing that remains [in Florida] are overseas ballots, usually military personnel,” Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer told Good Morning America. “In 1996, those ballots broke 54 percent for Bob Dole in a year in which Dole [lost] the state with 43 percent of the vote.”
Many absentee ballots remain in Florida, but on-the-ground results in several counties are also being scrutinized. And though military voters tend to go Republican, a young military group could contain many African-Americans and Latinos who may vote Democratic.
Fleischer said he’s not prepared to say whether the candidate would appoint a transition team, as is traditional for presidents-elect.
Gore communications director Mark Fabiani concentrated on Gore’s apparent win of the popular vote. Gore’s current lead of 200,000 votes is narrow enough to be wiped away with the two percent of results remaining to be counted.
“He won the popular vote. He got more votes than George Bush did across the great breadth of this country,” Fabiani told Good Morning America.
Roller Coaster Ride
Projections that Bush had won sent his supporters into a frenzy shortly after 2 a.m. ET at his campaign headquarters in Austin, Texas, as a crowd grew in anticipation of a victory celebration.
Gore even telephoned to congratulate the Texas governor and concede the race. But after learning of the close race in Florida, Gore called back to retract his earlier statement and to indicate his desire to wait for a final count.
“Do what you have to do,” the Bush campaign says its candidate told the vice president.
It was a dramatic night for the dueling campaigns, as ABCNEWS and other television networks projected a win for Gore in Florida, then took it back and then gave it to Bush before ultimately putting it back in the “too close to call” column.
Bush supporters were geared up to hear the governor’s victory speech when his campaign chairman took the stage to put off the party for another day.
“We hope and believe we have elected the next president of the United States,” Bush chairman Donald Evans said. “They’re still counting. They’re still counting. And I’m confident, when it’s all said and done, we will prevail.”
Not a Popularity Contest
Whoever wins the Electoral College, he could still win with a minority of the popular vote.
And the electorate is divided — by race, gender, income, age and geography. Whichever man wins, with a narrowly divided Supreme Court and Congress, there’s likely to be gridlock in Washington, analysts told Good Morning America.
Meanwhile, the Gore campaign is trying to create political space for their challenge to the Florida results by emphaizing the difference between the popular and electoral votes, ABCNEWS political analyst George Stephanopoulos told Good Morning America.
“If they win the popular vote, they believe they’ll have the public on their side. Most of the public thinks that the winner of the popular vote wins the election. So this possible difference between who wins the popular vote and who wins the electoral college could shake this country up,” Stephanopoulos said.
Historian Michael Beschloss agreed that a disparity would put a strain on the political system.
“Americans love the idea of popular will. We’d much prefer a president who wins by the popular vote,” he said.
Bush Scores in South
Aside from the chaos in Florida, Bush won the South solidly, from Virginia and the Carolinas on the Atlantic coast to his home state of Texas. He embarrassed Gore by capturing the vice president’s home state of Tennessee, along with Clinton’s home state of Arkansas. Much of the central West and Rocky Mountain region also has gone to Bush. Among Bush’s successses in Democratic strongholds was West Virginia, which has voted Democratic in five of the last six presidential elections before this year. Bush also picked off eight states that voted for Clinton in the last two elections, including, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Nevada and Ohio.
For Gore, victories in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois added to his near sweep of the Northeast. Bush managed to to eke out his only victory amid the sea of Gore states in New England by capturing New Hampshire, the scene of his most humiliating loss to Sen. John McCain during the Republican primaries — and another state that voted Democratic in 1992 and 1996.
The Gore camp breathed a sigh of relief Tuesday night after the Democrat won California, the night’s largest electoral prize with 54 electoral votes, despite Bush’s concerted efforts to score an upset there.
Washington state also went to Gore, easing concerns that the vice president would have trouble delivering this state for a fourth consecutive presidential election for Democrats. On the third-party front, Ralph Nader did not get the five percent result he needed for the Green Party to gain federal funding in the next election. And Pat Buchanan, whose candidacy shattered Ross Perot’s Reform Party, scored less than one percent.
ABCNEWS.com’s Brian Hartman and Sascha Segan, ABCNEWS’ Ann Compton and Kendra Gahagan contributed to this report.