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Election Day Dawns With Unpredictability

Kerry campaign spokesman Joe Lockhart countered with an optimistic appraisal of his own. "We think nationally this race is a dead heat, but in the battleground states we have a significant advantage," he said. "We think we have an advantage in both Ohio and Florida, and New Hampshire and Nevada are well within range."

Donna Brazile, manager of Gore's 2000 campaign, said: "I have not seen this kind of energy and excitement in the African American community since Jesse Jackson was running for the nomination back in 1984. People are pumped."

Under the watchful eye of poll observers, at left, voters line up at Leon County Courthouse in Tallahassee, Fla., to cast their presidential ballots early. Some reported waits of two to three hours to vote. (Mark Wallheiser -- Reuters)

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Brazile said that when she began making pro-Kerry calls to black radio stations at 7 a.m. yesterday, she found that many had already heard the same message from former president Bill Clinton.

Strategists in the two campaigns said four factors are likely to determine the outcome.

The first is how many people vote. Four years ago, about 106 million Americans cast ballots, and everything points to an increase this year. Some analysts predict that participation rates could equal or top those of 1992, which would mean close to 120 million voters. A huge increase is likely to favor Kerry.

The second question is which party is better at turning out its vote. Republicans hope to narrow or eliminate what has been a historical disadvantage on Election Day. In the past several presidential elections, Democrats made up about 39 percent of the electorate to the Republicans' 35 percent. The closer Republicans come to parity, the better Bush's chances of winning. Polls consistently show Republican support for Bush is more solid than Democratic support for Kerry.

A third key variable is how many first-time voters and young voters turn out. Four years ago, first-time voters accounted for 9 percent of the electorate, but with significant increases in registration in many battleground states, that number could rise. This election, unlike the 2000 contest, also has generated far more interest among voters under 30, and a sharp jump in their participation is possible. If it occurs, Kerry is likely to benefit; a Washington Post tracking poll showed him leading Bush, 60 percent to 37 percent, among likely voters under 30.

Finally, the two campaigns disagree about the electorates in the battleground states. Bush campaign strategists say the battleground states will track the national returns, but Kerry strategists say the senator has an advantage in the battlegrounds because they have seen the candidates constantly and have absorbed advertising nonstop since March.

Whoever wins this election will face a significant challenge unifying the country. An NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll asked people whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement, "No matter who wins the election, America will have a good president." Just 30 percent said they agreed and 65 percent said they disagreed.

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