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A bitterly divided nation will stay that way

Divided. That defined the United States as the votes were cast and counted in the bitter presidential election.

It was too close to call, predictably, in the first hours of counting. Record number of Americans voted, but whatever the eventual outcome, the country was going to manifest the same sort of ethnic, religious and class divisions that had been apparent in the 2000 election and since.

Like the presidential election, congressional races showed Americans sorely divided, so that the next four years will demonstrate the same sharp political divides that marked the Bush mandate.

The United States had been severely divided before -- for example, in the decades after Independence when Federalists battled Republicans, and in the years before the Civil War -- and it had known many close elections.

But in modern times, nothing rivalled the passions evoked by the Bush presidency.

Americans either adored or reviled him so the election was a referendum on him: his religious convictions, unshakeable certainties, inflexible determination, sharp ideology, and his insistence that he alone could keep his fellow citizens safe from "evil doers," "haters," terrorists and other enemies of God's chosen country, the United States of America.

Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's chief political strategist, framed one overarching objective for the Bush presidency: Gather up every possible evangelical Christian vote. Four million of them, he estimated, had not voted in 2000 when Mr. Bush lost the popular vote to Democrat Al Gore.

Ever since, Republicans had worked overtime to mobilize their religiously inclined voters, and the party waited nervously last night to see if that mobilization would be enough to snatch another victory.

Churches, state- and nation-wide religious groups, and social conservative institutions organized massive get-out-the-vote drives, especially in suburban and small-town America. These areas delivered in spades for the President in swing states, offsetting Democratic strength in large cities with their heavy concentration of minority voters.

Social conservative issues -- gay marriage, gun control, abortion, stem-cell research -- helped drive the President's campaign. They were "wedge issues" that galvanize many religiously inclined voters who see their faith and causes reflected in a President they adore.

The "war" on terror, however, was the highest trump in the Bush deck. The "war," more than any other issue, framed how Republicans presented Mr. Bush and ferociously attacked Senator John Kerry. An analysis of both parties' television advertising showed how much more negative Republican ads were. That negativity was uniformly directed at undermining Americans' confidence in Mr. Kerry's steadfastness to lead the "war" on terror.

That the invasion of Iraq has ensnared the U.S. in a quagmire from which there is no discernible escape didn't bother the majority of Bush supporters. That the situation there is worsening, not improving, didn't matter. For them, the President is a godly man, patriotic to his core, determined to win the "war," and smite the nation's enemies. If Mr. Bush had slipped up in describing non-existent weapons of mass destruction and links between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, those slips didn't matter in the larger picture. Polls even showed that a majority of Republican supporters, despite definitive evidence to the contrary, still believe the arguments about weapons of mass destruction and al-Qaeda links.

Republican supporters reasoned: Saddam was a thoroughly bad man. He didn't like the United States. Better that he be taken out. That way, bad guys elsewhere who don't like the United States would be taught a lesson. Don't mess with Texas, and don't mess with the United States. A muscular patriotism has often infused itself in the Republican bone. Seldom, however, has the fusion been so tight as with Mr. Bush and the "war" on terror.

Even though Mr. Bush had presided over a net loss of jobs, and even though many working Americans worried about health care, the vast majority of Americans are employed. Most of them do have health insurance. And although the Bush tax cuts disproportionately benefited the well off, most Americans got something, for which at least some of them were politically grateful.

The deficits on trade, current account and the federal budget didn't matter either. They were too abstract for many Americans to understand. Interest rates were low. Growth was reasonable-to-strong. An abiding faith in the restorative power of U.S. free enterprise, a bedrock Republican conviction, obliterated these problems from voters' minds.

Democrats, by contrast, counted all of these factors against the President and worked frantically to reverse what they believed had been a disastrous turn for the worst for their country. Seldom had the often fractious Democrats been so united, in part because they liked Mr. Kerry but more because they wanted George W. Bush ousted from the White House.

The election therefore perfectly mirrored the country: divided, angry and apprehensive.

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