by Ron Fournier
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
In an election for the history books, George W. Bush cautiously declared victory in the presidential race Wednesday even as Al Gore portrayed the outcome as uncertain and said Florida's crucial recount should be conducted "without any rush to judgment."
Democrats talked of a potential legal challenge and said it could be days or weeks before the nation knows its next president.
Bush was looking ahead to his transition to power, preparing to announce key roles in his administration for retired Gen. Colin Powell and former Transportation Secretary Andy Card. Running mate Dick Cheney, a former defense secretary under Bush's father, will head the GOP transition team, aides said.
And yet election officials were reviewing vote totals that appeared to give Bush a narrow win in Florida. The state's 25 electoral votes would provide the margin of victory as both Bush and Gore were agonizingly close to the 270 required to win the White House. The AP tally showed Bush leading by about 1,700 popular votes out of 6 million cast in the state.
"It's going to be resolved in a quick way," Bush said. "I'm confident that the secretary and I will be the president-elect and the vice president-elect."
If Bush ends up winning Florida and Gore's lead in the national popular vote holds, Bush would be the fourth man in history -- the first in more than a century -- to win the presidency despite coming in second in popular votes.
Calling this an "extraordinary moment in our democracy," Gore noted that the Constitution awards the presidency to the Electoral College winner, not necessarily the leading vote-getter. "We are now, as we have been from the moment of our founding, a nation built on the rule of law," Gore said.
But the vice president's aides were privately making the case that Gore's popular-vote lead gives him standing to contest the recount if state officials overlook voting irregularities. As Democrats searched for potential ballot abuses and questioned the motives of Florida's GOP secretary of state, Gore's staff said a legal challenge was one option.
The Gore campaign hired Florida lawyers both to monitor the recount and to gather possible evidence in the event of a ballot challenge.
Bush's brother Jeb, governor of Florida, said the recount would be completed by Thursday evening, but Democrats suggested that might not be the end.
"I can't say with certainty when this will be over," said Gore campaign chairman William Daley. "This is the beginning of the process, not the end of the process."
Earlier in the day, Daley said he doubted that a legal challenge would be made and that Gore was prepared to "move on" if he lost the recount. He rolled back on that, aides said, as evidence of suspected irregularities cropped up throughout the day.
President Clinton weighed in, too: "The American people have spoken, but it's going to take a little while to determine exactly what they said."
In Florida and elsewhere, Democrats grumbled about long lines at the polls, reports that ballots were late in arriving at polling places and other possible irregularities. Jesse Jackson said he got calls on Election Day complaining that blacks had difficulty voting in Florida and other Southern states.
"We don't think we're on the edge of a constitutional crisis and we don't intend to try to provoke a constitutional crisis," said Warren Christopher, the former secretary of state whom Gore had asked to represent his interests in Florida. Playing a similar role for Bush is James A. Baker III, a former secretary of state for Bush's father.
Bush said he was confident the total would stand and promised that he and running mate Dick Cheney "will do everything in our power to unite the nation to bring the people together after one of the most exciting elections in our nation's history."
He chose a relaxed setting outside the Governor's Mansion. Gore opted for a stern-looking lectern and a row of U.S. flags as his backdrop, promising a dignified transition "no matter what the outcome."
Behind the scenes, the two had had a more pointed exchange.
Gore conceded defeat Tuesday night in a telephone call to Bush, but called later to take it back after results rolled in from Florida. "Let me make sure I understand," protested Bush, his victory speech in hand. "You're calling me back to retract your concession?" Replied Gore: "You don't have to get snippy about this."
The next president, no matter who, faces a Congress that will be divided deeply by modest Democratic gains.
Voters on Tuesday spoke as if from two worlds -- men versus women, parents versus singles, city dwellers versus rural Americans, whites versus minorities -- casting distinctly different visions for America and denying the presidential victor any claim of a mandate.
Republicans retained control of the Senate, but lost seats and could be stuck with the smallest possible majority. They lost seats in the House, too, and will cling to a razor-thin advantage.
"It won't be easy for whoever is president," said Republican strategist Scott Reed.
History was made below the presidential line on the ballot, too. First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton won a New York Senate seat. Republican Sen. John Ashcroft lost to Missouri's Democratic governor who died in an October plane crash; the governor's widow, Jean Carnahan, is in line for an appointment to the seat.
Ever confident, Bush made several tentative decisions about his presidency before the race concluded. Aides said he would soon put them in place.
Presuming victory, aides said Powell will be nominated to be secretary of state, with an announcement planned within the week. Condoleezza Rice will be national security adviser, putting two blacks from Bush's father's national security team in prominent posts.
Cheney was to oversee Bush's transition team, and Card was his likely choice as White House chief of staff, aides said.
Gore, too, has given thought to his transition. Aides said the vice president's first decision would be what to do with Daley, a natural for transition director or White House chief of staff.
Seeming less confident than Bush, Gore advisers were considering his options if the Florida recount went against him. Some said privately he would be wise to quickly concede with a statesmanlike speech that, coupled with his popular-vote advantage, would position Gore as the Democratic front-runner in 2004.
Americans cast more than 101 million votes, the second most in history behind the 104 million of 1992. But the race came down to one state -- Florida -- and a few thousand people.
By late Wednesday, Bush had won 29 states for 246 electoral votes. Gore had won 18 states plus the District of Columbia for 255. New Mexico and Oregon were too close to call, but wouldn't make a difference.
With all precincts reporting unofficial results, Gore had 48,591,357 votes and Bush had 48,421,815 votes -- with just 169,542 votes separating them. Only three times before had a presidential candidate lost the popular vote but won the Electoral College, the last time in 1888 when Benjamin Harrison defeated Grover Cleveland.