WASHINGTON A triumph by President Bush on Tuesday, a victory for Democratic Sen. John Kerry. Take your pick. With the morning after still days away and the race still tight, here's a look ahead at how each candidate might hope to look back.
BUSH WINS: He beats the curse, avoiding the fate that befell his father: winning a war with Iraq but losing re-election.
With continuing turmoil in Iraq the dominant issue in the closing days of the race, Bush prevails in his gamble that a majority of voters would stick with him, the president they know, rather than changing leaders during a time of war.
Bush capitalized on emotions roiled by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, events that transformed his presidency and altered the geopolitical landscape. Against a barrage of Democratic criticism, he pushed the promise of ultimate success in Iraq and worked to connect the unpopular war with the widely endorsed one against al-Qaida terrorists.
Despite weak showings in three presidential debates, Bush exploited his advantage over Kerry on strength, steadiness and likability.
He also worked to parry the Democratic criticism that he was the first president to suffer a net loss of jobs since Herbert Hoover in the Great Depression. He blamed the 2001 recession, the Sept. 11 attacks, corporate scandals and two wars for those losses and credited his three tax cuts for recent job gains.
After his disputed 2000 win over Democrat Al Gore, decided only after the Supreme Court stopped a Florida recount, Bush worked hard this time to cobble together a winning margin in late-deciding swing states.
He rallied his conservative base. Then, he courted socially conservative Democrats in the nation's heartland, reaching to those who had supported Ronald Reagan in the past and who were uncomfortable with some of Kerry's positions.
The president benefited from a record quarter billion dollars spent by his campaign and the Republican Party to promote his candidacy and to disparage Kerry as a tax-and-spend Massachusetts liberal, a flip-flopper on Iraq and too wishy-washy to stand up to enemies.
In the end, Bush could credit a focused game plan, a coherent message and a topdown campaign organization that performed like a juggernaut.
Also contributing to a Bush victory:
Redistricting offered the promise of seven additional electoral votes just for carrying the same states he won in 2000.
State constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriages pushed conservative voters who otherwise might have stayed home to the polls.
The illness of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist reminded conservatives that Bush could name enough justices to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion.
Executions in Iraq angered voters, building support for a commander in chief who was most likely to exact vengeance.
The military vote surged in support of Bush.
Independent Ralph Nader helped tip the scales in the most closely contested states by siphoning votes from Kerry.
KERRY WINS: He succeeds in doing what seemed at first unlikely: unseating a wartime president.
Kerry hits pay dirt with his argument that the economy is floundering, Iraq is a quagmire and that it is time for a change.
Strong debate performances helped the four-term Massachusetts senator narrow the gap with Bush on handling terrorism and build voter confidence in his ability to be commander in chief.
Kerry pounded home his portrayal of Bush as a reckless and arrogant leader whose mistakes in Iraq made Americans more vulnerable at home.
He profited from the president's refusal to admit any errors on Iraq, which alienated many voters; and from the time Bush spent courting his conservative base, which made it hard for the president to win over moderate independents later in the campaign.
The Democrat caught a ride on voters' concerns about jobs and health care, issues important in the dozen or so battleground states. A stream of unhelpful economic news including jobs lost overseas, a surge in oil prices and a slide in the stock market hastened a loss of confidence in Bush.
With former President Clinton campaigning for him in the final days, the Massachusetts Democrat energized the party base, including blacks who had felt disenfranchised in the 2000 recount.
Kerry benefited from history: undecideds usually break for the challenger.
Also contributing to a Kerry win:
A surging youth vote. Young voters who used cell phones as home phones were unpolled, so Kerry enjoyed an unseen cushion all fall. Newly registered voters were largely anti-Bush.
Nader's fade gave Kerry votes that would have gone to the independent.
News of nearly 400 tons of missing explosives in Iraq reinforced Kerry's argument that the commander in chief had been incompetent.
Flu vaccine shortages angered older voters.
Rehnquist's illness reminded women that the next president could appoint three or more justices, endangering the landmark ruling on abortion.
Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.
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