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U.S.: Voters Expected To Turn Out In Record Numbers

Americans are heading to the polls today for what some observers say is the most important U.S. presidential contest in nearly half a century. Some 106 million Americans cast ballots in the controversial 2000 race that put George W. Bush in the White House. Today, that number is expected to swell to more than 121 million. The country is deeply divided on whether Bush or his Democratic rival, Senator John Kerry, is better suited to lead the United States at a time when terrorism, the war in Iraq, and the economy are dominating the concerns of most Americans.

Prague, 2 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- In the past, some U.S. presidential candidates have concluded their campaigns the day before the elections. But in a break with tradition, both Bush and Kerry headed out on election day today for more campaign appearances, even as Americans began to cast their votes.

Bush voted this morning at a firehouse near his Crawford, Texas, ranch. His tone was confident as he spoke to reporters before heading back out on the campaign trail in Ohio, a key battleground state.

"I think it's going to be me, so I can go on and lead this country, bring people together, set an agenda which will be to make sure America is secure, expand our prosperity and move forward," Bush said.

Kerry traveled today to the Midwest state of Wisconsin for a rally encouraging unregistered voters to register and vote. He later returned to his home state of Massachusetts to cast his ballot.

Bush and Kerry both spent yesterday running a marathon of last-minute campaign appearances in crucial "swing states" that could spell the difference between victory and defeat for either candidate.

Bush -- who has emphasized his stature as a self-described "war president" capable of protecting his country at a time of growing insecurity -- visited six U.S. states in a single 19-hour period.

Kerry spent yesterday making six campaign stops, traveling from Florida to the Midwestern states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio.

The Massachusetts senator spent his final campaign hours yesterday urging Americans to vote for change.

"If you believe we can make America stronger in the world again, restore our reputation, fight a more effective war on terror, if you believe our deficits are too high and we need to restore fiscal responsibility to our country, then I ask you to join me to change the direction of this country," Kerry said.

The frantic pace of the campaigning is a clear indication of how tight the presidential race is perceived to be. One final pre-election poll (CNN-"USA Today"-Gallup) shows the candidates tied with 49 percent each of the likely vote. Independent candidate Ralph Nader received 1 percent.

Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards, speaking on a television news program this morning, said he does not think it is possible to predict what's going to happen. "I think we're going to see unprecedented turnout," Edwards said. "And when that happens, democracy works."

Long lines are reported at voting stations in states ranging from Florida and North Carolina to West Virginia and Michigan. In a number of states, voters began lining up long before polls opened, sometimes as early as 6 am. Some voters in the Midwest reported standing in heavy rain for 45 minutes to cast their ballots.

Many have compared this year's hotly contested race to the 1960 election between Republican Richard Nixon and Democrat John Kennedy, which Kennedy narrowly won.

This year's race has been marked by the largest campaign expenditures in U.S. history.

By mid-October, more than $1.22 billion was spent on Kerry and other Democratic congressional candidates. Spending on Bush and other Republican candidates reached $1.27 billion in the same period.

The popular vote is important in a number of swing states because of the U.S. Electoral College system, which creates a formal body of 538 state electors divided between the states according to population size.

In most cases, the candidate who wins a plurality of the popular vote in a state wins all of that state's electoral votes. To win the presidency, a candidate must win the support of a majority of state electors -- or 270.

Bush lost the popular vote in 2000 but ultimately won enough Electoral College votes to take the presidency, after a long and bitter legal challenge settled by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The apparent closeness of this year's ballot has left many Americans fearing vote-tampering and other procedural irregularities. Complaints of missing ballots, disenfranchised voters and potential intimidation at polling stations have already been reported.

In addition to the president, Americans will elect 34 members of the U.S. Senate, 435 members of the House of Representatives, and 11 state governors.

Most voting locations have already opened on the East Coast. The last polling stations, in the far-western states of Hawaii and Alaska, will close at 12 p.m. EST.

Two small towns in New Hampshire cast and counted their votes just after midnight EST. If their votes are any indication, fate is smiling on the incumbent -- Bush took 35 votes, while Kerry took just 21.

(news agencies)