This Time It's Ohio

In a way-eerie replay of 2000, Bush vs. Kerry came down to one hotly contested state. The end, too, this time is coming out the same

By Richard S. Dunham

Editor's Note: John Kerry conceded defeat to President George W. Bush at 2 p.m. on Nov. 3. Bush made his victory speech at 3 p.m.

With all apologies to the great philosopher Yogi Berra, it feels like déjà vu all over again. Without the hanging chads, that is. This time, the password to a Presidential election muddle is "provisional ballots." And instead of Yogi's Yankee pinstripes, the pinstripe suits once again will be worn by the high-powered lawyers.

So much has changed in the past four years, and yet so much remains the same. The entire nation has lived through four unforgettable, monumental years, with international upheaval, terrorist trauma at home, a herky-jerky economy, and bitter partisan polarization that resulted in the nastiest Presidential campaign since 1912. Yet it seems like we're all reliving the great Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day, and we're back where we were the morning after the election four years ago.

Like 2000, George Bush and the Republicans seem to be poised on the brink of victory, but one big state remains in doubt. Lawyers and spinners are preparing to descend. The only difference: Instead of Florida, the post-election battle this time will be in Ohio. The hero (or villain) of this year's drama is another Republican Secretary of State: Four years ago, it was Florida's sharp-tongued, mascara-drenched, and ambitious Katherine Harris. This year, it's Ohio's soft-spoken, suave, and ambitious Ken Blackwell.


  But the Buckeye State won't be the only host to political drama in coming days. Election officials in Iowa also ended their vote count early on Nov. 3 with George W. Bush leading John Kerry by slim margin. Yet, thousands of votes remain to be counted, and faulty election equipment delayed Iowa's final results.

While the ultimate outcome looks grim, Democrats aren't ready to concede. "We will fight for every vote. You deserve no less," a clearly exhausted John Edwards, the Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee, told worn-down but cheering supporters in Boston at 2:30 a.m. on Nov. 3. Showing no signs of giving an inch, Edwards declared: "We have waited four years for this victory. We can wait one more night."

It might take more than one more night for the situation to resolve. Ohio's Blackwell told CNN that his office would take 11 days to determine whether the citizens who cast "provisional ballots" because their eligibility had been questioned, were legally entitled to vote. "Everybody should just take a deep breath and relax," he declared.

That might be difficult, with the stakes so high and the state of the world so uncertain. But the candidates may have no other choice.


  So where do things stand as dawn broke after Election Day? Bush leads by more than 3 million popular votes nationally, but he hasn't yet wrapped up the 270 electoral votes needed to claim victory. The Democratic campaign is preparing legal challenges and declaring that Ohio's uncounted absentee ballots and such provisional ballots could still tip the state -- and the election -- to Kerry.

"The vote count in Ohio has not been completed," Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill declared in a post-midnight written statement. "There are more than 250,000 remaining votes to be counted. We believe when they are, John Kerry will win Ohio."

The election of 2004 was amazing in its intensity, its venom, and, in its final hours, its resemblance to the near dead heat of 2000. Despite big increases in turnout, almost every state voted exactly the same way it did four years ago. Those that were decided by fewer than 10,000 votes four years ago were very close again.


  Instead of a razor-thin Bush victory in New Hampshire, for example, Bush lost this time by a slim margin. Instead of a 366-vote Democratic win in New Mexico, the party suffered a narrow defeat. Instead of eking out a triumph in Iowa, the Democrats appear to be falling just short.

Other states followed the pattern of 2000. The battlegrounds of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota, and apparently Wisconsin stayed in the Democratic column, though not by much. And Republican-leaning states such as Colorado and apparently Nevada stayed with Bush.

The pivotal states, just like 2000, were Florida and Ohio. But despite hundreds of millions of dollars in spending by Democratic nominee John Kerry and liberal allies, the senator fell well short in Florida this time and couldn't quite get over the top in Ohio. These were particularly disappointing for Democrats because reporters and campaign operatives gossiped all day about exit polls that, they declared, showed Kerry with a lead in both states.


  For most of the day, Bush operatives and GOP loyalists steeled themselves for an unexpected defeat, having gotten wind of the same exit polls. And Democrats kept their jubilation in check, awaiting the final tallies that they thought would send Kerry to the White House and Bush to an early retirement.

It wasn't to be. The exit polls were misleading. Bush's incredible field operation, led in Florida by superstrategist Ralph Reed and First Brother Jeb Bush, not only turned out the GOP vote but expanded it.

Democrats thought their record-breaking turnout would make the difference. But the Bush team matched the Dems person for person -- and upped the ante. Trailing by some 100,000 votes in Ohio, the Democrats had little choice but to fold -- or call in the lawyers.

They chose the latter. Now the future of the world's greatest democracy is in their hands. Or in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court. Sound familiar?

Dunham is BusinessWeek's Washington Outlook editor

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