US President George Bush today won a second term in office from a divided and anxious nation, his promise of steady, strong wartime leadership trumping John Kerry’s fresh-start approach to Iraq and joblessness.
After a long, tense night of vote counting, the Democrat called Mr Bush to concede Ohio and the presidency, The Associated Press learned.
Kerry ended his quest, concluding one of the most expensive and bitterly contested races on record, with a call to the President shortly after 11am EST (4pm Irish time), according to two officials familiar with the conversation.
The victory gave Mr Bush four more years to pursue the war on terror, a conservative domestic agenda and probably the opportunity to name one or more justices to an ageing Supreme Court.
He also will preside over expanded Republican majorities in Congress.
“Congratulations, Mr President,” Mr Kerry said in the conversation described by sources as lasting less than five minutes. One of the sources was Republican, the other a Democrat.
The Democratic source said Mr Bush called Mr Kerry a worthy, tough and honourable opponent. Mr Kerry told the President that the country was too divided and Mr Bush agreed.
“We really have to do something about it,” Mr Kerry said according to the Democratic official.
Mr Kerry placed his call after weighing unattractive options overnight.
With Mr Bush holding fast to a six-figure lead in make-or-break Ohio, Mr Kerry could give up or trigger a struggle that would have stirred memories of the bitter recount in Florida that propelled Mr Bush to the White House in 2000.
Mr Kerry's call was the last bit of drama in a campaign full of it.
He acted, hours after White House chief of staff Andy Card declared Mr Bush the winner and White House aides said the President was giving Mr Kerry time to consider his next step.
One senior Democrat familiar with the discussions in Boston said Mr Kerry’s running mate, North Carolina Senator John Edwards, was suggesting that he should not concede.
The official said Mr Edwards, a trial lawyer, wanted to make sure all options were explored and that Democrats pursued them as thoroughly as Republicans would if the positions were reversed.
Advisers said the campaign just wanted one last look for uncounted ballots that might close the 136,000-vote advantage Mr Bush held in Ohio.
An Associated Press survey of the state’s 88 counties found there were about 150,000 uncounted provisional ballots and an unspecified number of absentee votes still to be counted.
Ohio aside, New Mexico and Iowa remained too close to call in a race for the White House framed by a worldwide war against terror and economic worries at home.
But those two states were for the record – Ohio alone had the electoral votes to swing the election to the man in the White House or his Democratic challenger.
Mr Bush remained at the White House, a GOP legal and political team dispatched overnight to Ohio in case Mr Kerry made a fight of it.
Republicans already were celebrating election gains in Congress. They picked up at least three seats in the Senate, and a fourth was within their grasp, in Alaska. And they drove Democratic Senate Minority leader Tom Daschle from office.
That will be the state of play on Capitol Hill for the next two years, with the chance of a Supreme Court nomination fight looming along with legislative battles.
Republicans also reinforced their majority in the House.
Glitches galore cropped up in overwhelmed polling places as Americans voted in high numbers, fired up by unprecedented registration drives, the excruciatingly close contest and the sense that these were unusually consequential times.
The country exposed its rifts on matters of great import in yesterday’s voting. Exit polls found the electorate split down the middle or very close to it on whether the nation is moving in the right direction, on what to do in Iraq, on whom they trust with their security.
Bush built a solid foundation by hanging on to almost all the battleground states he got last time. Facing the cruel arithmetic of attrition, Mr Kerry needed to do more than go one state better than Al Gore four years ago
Redistricting since then had left those 2000 Democratic prizes 10 electoral votes short of the total needed to win the presidency.
Florida fell to Mr Bush again, close but no argument about it.
Mr Bush’s relentless effort to wrest Pennsylvania from the Democratic column fell short. He had visited the state 44 times, more than any other. Mr Kerry picked up New Hampshire in perhaps the election’s only turnover.
In Ohio, Kerry won among young adults, but lost in every other age group. A quarter of Ohio voters identified themselves as born-again Christians and they backed Mr Bush by a 3-to-1 margin.
A sideline issue in the national presidential campaign, gay civil unions may have been a sleeper that hurt Mr Kerry – who strongly supports that right – in Ohio and elsewhere. Ohioans expanded their law banning gay marriage, already considered the toughest in the country, with an even broader constitutional amendment against civil unions.
In all, voters in 11 states approved constitutional amendments limiting marriage to one man and one woman.
In Florida, Mr Kerry again won only among voters under age 30. Six in 10 voters said Florida’s economy was in good shape, and they voted heavily for Mr Bush. Voters also gave the edge to the President’s handling of terrorism.
In Senate contests, Congressman John Thune’s victory over Mr Daschle represented the first defeat of a Senate party leader in a re-election race in more than a half century. Republicans were assured of at least 53 seats in the coming Senate, two more than now.
Republicans made gains in Congress too, where they had prevailed for a decade.
Nationwide, with 98% of the precincts reporting, 112 million people had voted - up from 105 million in 2000. Mr Bush was ahead in the popular vote, which he lost in 2000, and independent Ralph Nader was proving to be much less of a factor this year than four years ago.
Exit polls conducted for The Associated Press and the television networks by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International suggested that slightly more voters trusted Mr Bush to handle terrorism than Mr Kerry. A majority said the country was safer from terrorism than in 2000, and they overwhelmingly backed Mr Bush.
But many said things were going poorly in Iraq, and they heavily favoured Mr Kerry. And with nearly one million jobs lost in Mr Bush’s term, Mr Kerry was favoured by eight of 10 voters who listed the economy as a top issue.
Mr Kerry is scheduled to speak at 6pm Irish time, followed by Mr Bush at 8pm Irish time.