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Final Push Puts Tight Race Into Hands of Voters

Election: Americans cast ballots today in the closest presidential contest in decades; voter turnout may be the deciding factor. Control of Congress also up for grabs.


Scrambling from one must-win state to another, Al Gore and George W. Bush battled through the eleventh hour and beyond as the tightest presidential campaign in decades hurtled today to a dramatic close.

As the candidates raced time and faced exhaustion, the major parties and their allies were mounting the most extensive, most expensive get-out-the-vote drive in the nation's history.

Sound trucks prowled streets in black neighborhoods across the country, urging support for Gore and his fellow Democrats. Gun control opponents in Atlanta were raffling a shotgun to spur turnout for Bush and the GOP. VIPs, from Barbara Bush to Whoopi Goldberg, were featured on telephone recordings flooding millions of homes nationwide.

"Generally, the importance of turnout is a cliche, but it's no cliche this time," said Andy Kohut, an independent pollster. "It's down to a ground war."

Across the country, control of the House could turn on a handful of closely fought seats, including several in California. Control of the Senate--though a longer shot for Democrats--is also up for grabs.

In the nation's highest-profile Senate contest, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton is vying against Republican Rick Lazio in New York.

In California, Democrat Dianne Feinstein is defending her Senate seat against Republican Tom Campbell. Half the state Senate and the entire Assembly will be selected, along with California's 52-member congressional delegation.

State voters also will decide on eight statewide ballot measures, on issues from school vouchers to property taxes to campaign-finance reform. Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. PST.

Despite the suspense surrounding the presidential race, experts predicted a turnout nationally ranging from a ho-hum 46% to 51% of the voting-age population--not much better than the 49% in the lopsided 1996 contest.

Elsewhere across the country, voters in 42 states will consider more than 200 initiatives and referendums, including efforts to legalize marijuana in Alaska, curb development in Colorado and end dog racing in Massachusetts. Eleven states will choose governors.

The first votes in the stubbornly unpredictable presidential race were cast early today in two tiny hamlets of New Hampshire, the state where the year's first primary was held on a cold day nine months ago. Bush won in both Hart's Location and Dixville Notch.

Now, with the end upon them, Gore and Bush exhorted their faithful to the polls, mindful that a relative handful of votes could be key to picking the nation's 43rd president. Each pared his message to bare-boned brevity.

"It's time for new leadership," Bush told a crowd of about 5,000 cheering supporters packed into an airport hangar in Chattanooga, Tenn. "It's time for someone who's going to bring people together to get the people's business done."

In St. Louis, Gore rallied a luncheon crowd of about 2,000 by proclaiming: "I will work hard for you every day and will never let you down. And I will fight for you with all of my heart."

The Green Party's Ralph Nader made his own sprint across the Northeast, alternately combative and wistful as he expressed hope his candidacy would inspire a wave of citizen activism.

"Winning is pushing the agenda toward the interests of the people," Nader said in New York City. "Winning is bringing hundreds of thousands of people into progressive political activity."

Rallies From Morning to Night

Bush spent Monday tweaking the opposition by stumping not only in Gore's native Tennessee but President Clinton's home state of Arkansas. The race in both states is neck and neck. Bush also touched down in Iowa and Wisconsin--which Clinton and Gore carried in 1992 and 1996--before wrapping up with a nightcap rally at his hometown airport in Austin, Texas.

"I didn't seem that long ago that Laura and I got on an airplane out of here and headed up to Iowa and New Hampshire," Bush told the crowd of about 1,000. "Here we are, 17 months later, coming. I've got a report from the field: We have just seen thousands of fellow Americans. We've laid the groundwork and if the people do what I think they're gonna do, you're looking at the next president of the United States."

For the most part, Bush stuck to the Cliff Notes version of his standard speech in a series of rapid-fire events. At a morning gathering under threatening skies in Chattanooga, he characterized Gore as a man who has "strayed from his Tennessee roots," underscoring what he sees as a fundamental difference in today's election.

"We stand squarely side by side with the people of Tennessee . . . because we trust the people. We feel differently about government than my opponent does," Bush said. "He forgot his roots. He forgot where he's from. He trusts Washington. We trust the people."

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