MILWAUKEE -- President Bush and Sen. John Kerry reached for the finish line Tuesday in a campaign for the ages, each claiming to be the strong, steady leader needed in a time of terrorism. "The world is watching," said the Democratic challenger in a race that defied safe prediction.
"This election comes down to who do you trust," Bush said as Air Force One carried him to several states on a final full day of campaigning.
By election eve, uncounted millions of Americans had voted early in 32 states, including more than 1.8 million in Florida alone. Both campaigns primed Election Day turnout programs in battleground states from New Hampshire to Nevada.
Democrats, claiming Republicans were seeking to discourage minority voters, won a pair of court rulings Monday in Ohio that barred party representatives from challenging voters at their polling places. GOP attorneys quickly appealed, hoping for a reversal before Ohio polls opened at 6:30 a.m. today.
The nation's terror alert -- a constant reminder of the attacks of 2001 -- remained at yellow for most of the country, despite the emergence late last week of a videotape of Osama bin Laden taunting Bush.
The war on terror aside, there were fresh reminders of the election's stakes. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, 80 and the cornerstone of a conservative Supreme Court, disclosed he was undergoing radiation and chemotherapy for his thyroid cancer, a sign that he had a potentially grave form of the disease.
49-49 in one poll
After nearly eight months of head-to-head campaigning between the president and the Massachusetts senator, the final pre-election polls turned up tied -- 49-49 in one CNN-USA Today-Gallup survey, with Ralph Nader at 1 percent. Tight surveys in Florida as well as Ohio and other Midwestern states added to the uncertainty of the competition for 270 electoral votes.
Both rivals planned to campaign well into the wee hours today -- Bush in Dallas, Kerry in La Crosse, Wis.
With the nation divided, Democrats needed ticket-splitters to help them gain seats in Congress. Only nine of 34 Senate races on the ballot appeared competitive, seven of them in states where Kerry had not seriously contested Bush.
Texas, the president's home state, figured to have an outsized influence on the battle for the House. There, five Democratic incumbents with 82 years seniority combined faced difficult challenges as the result of GOP-engineered redistricting.
Kerry made six stops in four states on Monday -- two each in Ohio and Wisconsin -- pledging to be an advocate for the middle class and those struggling to join it. "I've heard your struggles. I share your hopes. And together, tomorrow we have a chance to make a difference," he said, casting Bush as a friend of the rich and powerful.
In Florida, Kerry said he stood ready to assume national command in a time of terrorism. "I believe we can bring the world back to the side of America. I believe that we can regain America's respect and influence in the world, and I believe we deserve a president who knows how to fight a more effective war on terror and make America safe," he said.
In Milwaukee several hours later, he pledged a "fresh start to Iraq."
"I know what we need to do and so do you. It is inexcusable that American troops have been sent to war without the armor they need, without the number of troops that they need, without the ability to have allies at their side, making America stronger. This president rushed to war without a plan to win the peace, and we need a commander in chief who knows how to get the job done."
Bush campaigned across five states before heading home to vote on Election Day. At one point, the two men and their entourages nearly crossed paths, the president preparing to leave Milwaukee aboard Air Force One in early afternoon as Kerry's chartered jet was arriving.
"There have been some tough times in Ohio," Bush conceded as he began his day in a state that has lost 232,000 jobs since he took office. But he said the state has 5,500 new jobs since last month, and added, "We are moving in the right direction."
'Clarity and purpose'
He said his rival belongs in the "flip-flop hall of fame" for saying he voted for and against legislation providing $87 billion for troops in Iraq, but for the most part, the criticism was muted.
"The American president must lead with clarity and purpose. As presidents from Lincoln to Roosevelt to Reagan so clearly demonstrated, a president must not shift with the wind," Bush said. "A president has to make the tough decisions and stand by them."
Vice President Dick Cheney was far more pointed. "The clearest, most important difference in this campaign is simple to state: President Bush understands the war on terror and has a strategy for winning it. John Kerry does not," he said in Hawaii, a traditionally Democratic state where Republicans hoped to spring an Election Day surprise.
Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards, was in Minnesota, Iowa, Ohio and Florida, forecasting victory for the Democrats at every opportunity. "Tomorrow, hope will arrive," he said in Iowa, the state where precinct caucuses provided the first returns in the race for the White House more than nine months ago.
With the polls so tight, the biggest imponderable was turnout.
Curtis Gans, director of the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, estimated that as many as 117.5 million to 121 million voters would cast ballots, 58 percent to 60 percent of those eligible.
The more the better, said the Democrats, knowing that Kerry couldn't win without carrying at least one state Bush claimed in 2000. They argued that get-out-the-vote operations financed by organized labor and other organizations would help them hold Pennsylvania, where Al Gore won in 2000, and take Ohio, where Bush won.
Republicans counted on their own nationwide effort to mobilize, particularly in small towns and distant suburbs where they hope the president's opposition to gay marriage, abortion and gun control give him an opening with conservative Democrats.
Thus, while Bush was struggling in Ohio, Kerry was forced to defend Michigan in the campaign's final hours, as well as Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Gore carried all four states in 2000.