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Posted: 11/3/2004 4:32:57 AM EST

President Seems Poised to Claim a New Mandate

Published: November 3, 2004

From beginning to end, this election was about George W. Bush, and he can claim that an apparently insurmountable lead in the popular vote vindicated his policies, his persistence, his personal qualities and his political strategy. He bet that voters who had shared a traumatic terrorist attack and two wars on his watch would stand by him, and they appeared to.

A president who won by a whisker four years ago, then governed as if he had a landslide, was within striking distance of an electoral vote mandate for a second term. He picked up Republican, and conservative, seats in a still-divided Senate, and support for his stance against gay marriage in states where ballot measures banning it won approval.

In an election marked by divisiveness to the bitter end, much remained clouded early this morning: John Kerry's camp maintained that he could yet win pivotal Ohio and close the gap, and that uncertainties in Iowa and New Mexico might be resolved in his favor.

But in sweet redemption, Mr. Bush exorcised the ghost of the Florida recount by winning a decisive victory in that state where his brother is governor and bid fair to become the only son of an American president ever to be elected president himself, then win a second term, and thus escape the curse of John and John Quincy Adams.

"I've given it my all," Mr. Bush said after voting yesterday morning, and millions of Republican voters returned the favor, outperforming the party's past margins in crucial counties and states from Florida to Ohio. Divided as the nation was and remains, Democrats apparently failed to realize their highest hopes that tens of millions of dollars and anger at Mr. Bush could galvanize enough voters to defeat him.

So what next? If even a one-vote margin is a mandate, as John F. Kennedy once said, what might a real mandate look like for Mr. Bush? Will he pursue his course undaunted, whatever the opposition may do? Or once again seek, as he promised four years ago, to "change the tone" in Washington, and reach out to the one-quarter of voters in the electorate who described themselves as angry at his administration?

The evidence is mixed, and second terms are notoriously unpredictable - and disappointing. But Mr. Bush has never been a man to shrink from a fight, and he may well have a hot one on his hands soon enough, if there is a confirmation battle in the Senate to replace the ailing Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.

Perhaps no issue is more important than the judiciary to Mr. Bush's conservative base, including the 2 in 10 voters who yesterday told pollsters that "moral issues" mattered to them more than any other. And because victory would mean that the president would have a chance to nominate a clear conservative majority to the Supreme Court, no issue would be more contentious among Mr. Bush's liberal opponents, and Democrats seem all but certain to filibuster any choice they see as too extreme.

Mr. Bush would become the 12th of the 17 incumbent presidents who have sought re-election since 1900 to win a second term. Already, through his aggressive handling of terrorism and foreign policy, he has made himself not only the most polarizing president since Richard M. Nixon but also guaranteed himself a prominent place in the history books ,and historical debate, for years to come.

"This is a latter-day Wilson presidency," said Richard Norton Smith, a scholar of the presidency and director of the Abraham Lincoln presidential library in Springfield, Ill., invoking Woodrow Wilson's impassioned intervention in World War I to make the world "safe for democracy." "It's going to matter, it's going to be pointed to - pro and con - for a long time."

But any success for Mr. Bush was also very much Mr. Kerry's failure. If Mr. Bush struggled all year to post job approval ratings of 50 percent or better, a classic danger sign for an incumbent, Mr. Kerry failed all year to open a clear lead in the national polls.

Mr. Kerry was counting on millions of first-time Democratic voters to carry him through, and millions apparently did turn out, but probably not enough to make the difference. Many of those who chose Mr. Kerry said they considered their vote to be against Mr. Bush, not for their candidate, according to surveys of voters leaving the polls.

Only about half the voters yesterday had a favorable view of Mr. Kerry, about the same as for Mr. Bush, and he dueled Mr. Bush only to a draw on who would best handle the economy - an issue that Mr. Kerry had once hoped to make his signature. Voters who cited honesty as the most important quality in a candidate broke 2 to 1 in Mr. Bush's favor, despite Mr. Kerry's relentless accusations that Mr. Bush had misled the public into war.

Mr. Bush's chief political adviser, Karl Rove, had long believed that if he could draw out conservative and evangelical voters who stayed home four years ago, he could "make the pie higher," as Mr. Bush once memorably said of his goals for economic growth. Differences in the wording of exit-poll questions between this year and 2000 made a definitive early assessment of how well that succeeded difficult, but a third of all voters yesterday identified themselves as evangelicals, according to surveys of voters leaving the polls.

There were at least some signs that state ballot measures on gay marriage had helped boost conservative turnout.

While domestic issues like health care seemed to resonate with voters more than questions of foreign policy, the war in Iraq was a drag on Mr. Bush's support, as it has been all year. While a bare majority of voters said the decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein was correct, a majority also said that it was going badly and had jeopardized the nation's long-term security.

"It's not Vietnam, but it stands in the shadow of Vietnam, and as a consequence, people see this as similar," said Robert Dallek, a presidential historian and biographer of Lyndon B. Johnson. "There is no question Bush could have rallied the whole country to his side in the wake of Sept. 11, and kept it there. But he has been divisive and this is a knock on him."

Mr. Bush's last presidential election may be over, but the first election in the post-Saddam Hussein Iraq has yet to be held. In his convention acceptance speech this summer, Mr. Bush himself acknowledged that when he campaigned four years ago, "none of us could have envisioned what these years would bring."

Once again, Mr. Bush and a divided nation may well have a chance to find out.

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