Unofficial totals in the tightly-contested state of Ohio show President Bush ahead by more than 100,000 votes. A win in Ohio would presumably give Mr. Bush enough electoral votes to win a second term. The Democrats say not all votes are counted, but the Bush camp claimed victory in Ohio early Wednesday morning.
President Bush took a lead the moment the polls closed, and with almost all the Ohio votes counted, his lead was well over 130,000 votes. That is more than 51 percent, compared to 48 percent-plus for the Democratic challenger, Senator John Kerry.
But there is an unknown number of what are called provisional ballots. These are ballots used in cases where there is a question about the voter's eligibility.
Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell says it is unlikely the number of provisional ballots is more than 150,000, making it almost impossible for Senator Kerry to make up the difference.
But Mr. Blackwell suggested it could be days before an official winner is declared. "What I would suggest to you is that, if the number of votes that make up the difference between the two candidates is fewer than the number of provisional ballots, then I would say everybody should just take a deep breath and relax, because we're not gonna start counting those ballots until the 11th day after this election," he said.
While Democrats clung to hope, Ohio Republicans began celebrating. At a loud party at a Columbus hotel, Bush campaign worker Adam Kuhn said he was confident of victory.
"We'll celebrate tonight, because it's official in our eyes. But 12 days from now, it'll be official in America's eyes," he said.
Republicans had long considered Ohio the key to victory. No Republican presidential candidate has ever won the 270 total electoral votes necessary to clinch the presidency, without taking Ohio.
Early Wednesday morning, President Bush's chief of staff, Andrew Card, said the White House was certain of victory, but that President Bush would give Mr. Kerry more time, as he put it to reflect on the results.
"We are convinced that President Bush has won re-election, with at least 286 electoral college votes," he said.
The election had been expected to be contentious. Thousands of lawyers poured into the state expecting legal challenges, amid charges of fraud and intimidation.
Hours before the polls opened, a federal court overturned lower court decisions that would have limited the Republicans' ability to monitor polling activity.
But at one Columbus precinct late Tuesday, Democratic poll watcher Matt Cincione said the atmosphere had been calm and cooperative.
"We're not here to challenge," he said. "We're here to observe and to protect people's rights, if there are challenges. I've been here all day, and there have been no challenges."
But Democratic political analyst Kurt Markus agreed afterward that the vote had gone better than expected. "There was not the contentiousness at the polls that many feared," he said. "Things went relatively smoothly in that regard. The big problem that didn't go well was managing the enormous turnout."
The turnout, 5.5 million Ohioans, clearly caught election officials by surprise. Long lines kept polling stations open long after the 7:30 p.m. closing time.
Nationwide, experts say, the final vote total could top 111 million, making it one of the biggest turnouts in presidential election history.