George W. Bush has thanked the voters who returned him to the U.S. presidency, saying that he was "humbled by the trust and confidence" of his fellow citizens and that he would reach out to Democrats.
"We had a long night, and a great night," Mr. Bush, giving his victory speech mid-afternoon Wednesday after many tense hours when a replay of 2000's extended uncertainty appeared possible.
"Voters turned out in record numbers and delivered a historic victory," he told supporters in Washington. "America has spoken."
John Kerry had conceded the race about an hour earlier, ruling out courtroom challenges and urging the victorious Bush-Cheney team to bring the sharply divided nation back together.
"In America it is vital that every vote count, and that every vote be counted. But the outcome should be decided by voters, not a protracted legal process," Mr. Kerry told supporters in Boston, running mate John Edwards at his side.
Mr. Kerry conceded with final numbers still unknown in Iowa, which will not affect the outcome. As the results rolled in through the night it became obvious that the crucial state was Ohio, both candidates needed it to win the overall prize. Mr. Bush retained a slim but consistent lead all night and the state was called for him late morning on Wednesday.
"I would not give up this fight if there was a chance that we would prevail," Mr. Kery said hours later, referring to Ohio. "We cannot win this election."
In his victory speech, Mr. Bush signalled that the battle to end terrorism will be a primary goal of his next term, saying that he would work to make the nation safe for its descendents.
Around the time he was speaking, his campaign put up an upbeat video, which featured the President saying that he knows what needs to be done to "make the world more peaceful [and] hopeful."
Voters have given Mr. Bush a powerful hand to play, returning increased majorities in both the House of Representative and the Senate. As well, the Supreme Court is aging and as many as four vacancies could open up during his second term.
Mr. Bush spent part of his victory speech lauding the economic and military policies of his first term.
"Because we have done the hard work we are entering a season of hope," he said. "I see a great day coming for our country and I am eager for the work ahead."
The concession from Mr. Kerry comes after a bruising campaign, a close result and hints that, as in Florida four years ago, the election could drag out for days or weeks.
As the electoral race stands now, Mr. Bush has 279 electoral votes and Mr. Kerry has 252. Mr. Edwards said that his campaign would continue to fight for every vote in Ohio, not because it would change the result but because fair counting is crucial to a democracy.
In his concession speech, Mr. Kerry said that he and Mr. Bush had spoken earlier Wednesday about the need to bring a polarized electorate back together.
"We talked about the danger of division in our country and the need, the desperate need, for unity, for finding common ground," he said. "Today, I hope that the healing can begin."
Earlier Wednesday, it did not look as though it would end this smoothly. Few media outlets would predict when results in the three uncalled states would be known and Mr. Edwards signalled that the Democrats would fight to the end.
The deadlock in Ohio revived memories of the recount debacle in Florida four years ago and dashed initial hopes that the divisive campaign would be capped by a recognize winner with a clear mandate.
Both candidates reportedly had teams of lawyers ready to spring into action if they had reason to doubt any of the results. But by late morning the wishful thinking had run over, leading Mr. Kerry to telephone his opponent and, according to reports, tell him "congratulations, Mr. President."
The divisive election race, coupled with worries about terrorism and the economy, bought out an unusually high number of voters. Millions voted in advance polls and there were long lines at polling places Tuesday.
As of midday Wednesday, Mr. Bush was ahead 51 per cent to 48 per cent in the nationwide vote, about 3.6 million votes in all. More people voted in the election than have voted in any previous U.S. presidential election.
Officials predicted record turnout in the first wartime election in a generation. The popular vote could be the highest ever but, under the Electoral College system, the U.S. president is not chosen by a simple comparison of the nationwide vote. Presidential candidates compete in each state individually for the support of Electors that are distributed among the states, in part based on their population. Most states operate under winner-take-all rules, meaning that a candidate who wins a bare minimum in any given state gets the support of all of the state's Electors.
The state-by-state results are almost exactly the same in this election as four years ago. In spite of terrorist attacks, several wars, a struggling economy and bitter year-long campaigns that cost hundreds of millions of dollars, the only state to change hands was New Hampshire, won by Mr. Bush in 2000 and by Mr. Kerry this time.
Through the lengthy campaign, Mr. Bush has reiterated his refrain that security issues matter above all. The national-security focus of the Bush campaign got a boost in the dying days by a statement from al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who said that only a change in U.S. foreign policy could keep Islamic terrorists from striking America again.
Mr. Kerry used the tape by illustrate Mr. Bush's decision to take attention off al-Qaeda and focus instead on Iraq. He argued that U.S. citizens could not afford four more years of Republican policies.