Watching returns

Christine Peterson (left) and Ruby Pratka watch returns at the state Democratic Party's celebration at the Wyndham Hotel in Baltimore. (Sun photo by Karl Merton Ferron / November 2, 2004)

WASHINGTON - President Bush and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts were locked in a nail-biting race early this morning as Ohio emerged as the key battleground in the election.

After winning the hotly contested state of Florida, Bush was inching toward a victory in newly pivotal Ohio, where he had a roughly 125,000-vote lead with 4 percent of the vote uncounted.

In a sign that he had no plans to concede, Kerry dispatched running mate John Edwards early this morning to address a dwindling crowd of supporters gathered at Copley Square in Boston.

"It's been a long night, but we've waited four years for this victory - we can wait one more night," Edwards told the crowd in an uncharacteristically terse statement.

"John Kerry and I made a promise to the American people that in this election, every vote would count and every vote would be counted," he said. "Tonight we are keeping our word, and we will fight for every vote. You deserve no less."

Four years ago, many Democrats were angered when the party nominee, Al Gore, conceded prematurely and then had to withdraw his statement.

In one scenario, this year's race could deadlock at 269 electoral votes, throwing the election's fate into the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. The president had racked up victories throughout the South and Midwest, and Kerry won in the Northeast, West Coast and Illinois.

It was still possible for Kerry to turn the race around if he took a late lead in Ohio, with its 20 electoral votes, or posted wins in enough remaining states to earn him the 270 electoral votes he would need to prevail.

The Kerry campaign was holding out hope that the senator could claim Ohio, arguing that uncounted provisional ballots could give him the edge.

"The vote count in Ohio has not been completed," Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill said in a statement issued early this morning. "There are more than 250,000 remaining votes to be counted. We believe when they are, John Kerry will win Ohio."

Other estimates ranged as low as 100,000 provisional ballots. Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, a Republican, refused to say how many such ballots existed.

Legions of attorneys and poll-watchers were standing by in case of voting problems as both political parties searched for signs of a 2000 Florida-esque outcome. No major irregularities were reported, but legal disputes that could affect the outcome cropped up in Ohio, where a judge ruled over Republican objections that voters who were stuck in long lines after the polls closed could cast provisional ballots. A separate Ohio ruling allowed voters who did not receive their absentee ballots in the mail to cast provisional ballots.

In Florida, election workers overwhelmed by the number of absentee ballots cast in heavily Democratic Miami-Dade County said as many as 50,000 would not be counted until tomorrow.

In Iowa, the state secretary of state said early this morning that officials would not report results until later today because of broken ballot-counting machines and fatigue among poll workers.

Throughout the night and into this morning, Kerry huddled with his family awaiting the returns as Bush watched from the White House.

Both spent yesterday morning campaigning, then cast their votes and betrayed notes of nostalgia as their marathon bids drew to a close.

"I've given it my all," the president said after voting at a firehouse in Crawford, Texas.

Last night at the White House, Bush said, "I believe I will win, thank you very much," adding that "it's going to be an exciting evening."

A defeat for Bush would make him the first wartime president to be cast out by voters.