As aides juggled nerve-racking election returns, President Bush invited reporters into his residence last night to record the tableau of the president, his family and his dog serenely watching the numbers that would determine whether he achieved the reelection that had eluded his father.
"We're very upbeat, thank you," Bush said when asked how it was going. Pressed on whether the winner would be clear last night, he said with a smile, "I believe I will win, thank you very much."
In a reversal of fortune from 2000, the election-night surprises this time were all promising for Bush. Even though Sen. John F. Kerry did not concede, annoyed White House officials concluded that it was statistically impossible for him to win. At 1:01 a.m. Wednesday, a veteran of the recount wars raised a glass of white wine in the West Wing.
When Bush received reporters in his residence at 9:37 p.m., past his usual bedtime, the setting was designed to project confidence after a grim day around the White House. With discouraging exit polls pouring into Bush-Cheney campaign headquarters in Arlington, Bush strategists privately described the early picture as cataclysmic. But they started reminding reporters and top supporters that those polls had been wrong in 2000, and they asserted that Bush was doing better than the figures suggested.
With cameras crowded into his West Sitting Hall on the White House's rarely visited second floor, Bush broke the ice by asking Barney, the family's Scottish terrier, if he had anything to say. First lady Laura Bush, his parents and others were crammed onto a sofa, with Bush's daughter Barbara perched on one arm.
"Enjoy working with you all," Bush told the reporters. "It's been a great campaign."
The president was making frequent calls. Aides said that they had been glum earlier in the day but that Bush had not wavered and was bolstered through the evening by chats with his younger brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R).
Elsewhere in the White House, about 30 friends and relatives -- some from Midland, Tex. -- ate from a buffet of tamales and tenderloin before watching returns.
Bush's senior staff and their spouses set up for the evening in the Roosevelt Room, where they had an Internet terminal along with three television sets, including one often used for classified videoconferences. The guests were given red, white and blue score cards -- complete with a map and a table of closing times and electoral votes -- to follow returns. When White House senior adviser Karl Rove said he believed that Bush would win Ohio and Florida, they erupted in cheers.
While most of Bush's political aides worked in Arlington, Rove set up his own war room in the Old Family Dining Room. Late at night, Bush dropped by.
Bush's father, former president George H.W. Bush, said he felt "good" as he walked briskly over to the Roosevelt Room. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice said she was spending part of the time in the quiet of her office and joked that she would be happy to discuss the Ukrainian election. "Democracy in America is a little more complicated," she said.
Bush started the day at his Texas ranch, , pronouncing himself satisfied that he had given the race his all before he made a final campaign stop in Ohio. After voting at the Crawford volunteer fire station, Bush walked across muddy, narrow Avenue F to tell reporters that the election "is in the hands of the people, and I feel very comfortable about that."
"There's just something refreshing about giving it your all and then saying the people will make the right decision -- and I believe I'm going to win," he said.
During a quick visit to his campaign headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, he took the phone from a volunteer and said: "Julie? This is President Bush calling. How are you? No, I promise you it's me."
For at least 10 days, members of Bush's inner circle had lacked the bravado they had before the disputed election of 2000, and yesterday Bush sounded more solemn than cocky as he chatted with reporters for five minutes in Crawford. Laura Bush, a smile on her face, gripped his hand and kneaded his thumb as he spoke.
Gone was the tough rhetoric that he had used even in his final rallies. Bush said he wished Kerry well. "I trust the judgment of the American people," he said.
Bush chuckled his full-body chuckle when a correspondent asked him how he accounted for all the passion that had been generated for and against him. "Well, I take that as a compliment," he said. "I take a stand, and I tell people what I believe."
Bush was planning to declare victory or concede to Kerry at the Ronald Reagan Building, where the Republican National Committee had set up a "victory party" in the marble-floored atrium. Bush aides had prepared both victory and concession speeches. Although Bush had not shown by the early morning, his twins, Jenna and Barbara, arrived to meet friends. Country music blared, and waiters served drinks to about 4,000 guests.
Bush's staff had announced that the Cabinet would meet Thursday -- whether the election was won, lost or undecided.