Voters in Florida and across the nation swept President Clinton back into office Tuesday, completing his remarkable, triumphant comeback from a midterm unpopularity so deep that many had predicted he was doomed to serve a single term.
Just two years ago, the nation was angry and fed up and repudiated Clinton by firing his party from the job of running Congress. But on Tuesday, they rejected Republican Bob Dole and made Clinton, 50, the first Democrat to be elected and re-elected since Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932 and 1936.
Judging from exit polls, the voters entered the booth with eyes open. Most said they believed at least some of the allegations in various scandals involving the White House. Still, most said they were better off than four years ago and chose Clinton's "bridge to the 21st century" over the 73-year-old Dole.
As the popular vote was being added across the nation, Clinton was leading Dole by 49 percent to 41 percent. Reform Party candidate Ross Perot had 8 percent.
In the state-by-state battles of the Electoral College, Clinton's margin of victory was more dramatic. He was leading in states with 375 electoral votes, compared with 135 for Dole, and none for Perot.
Television networks declared Clinton had won enough states to be re-elected just after 9 p.m. EDT. As soon as Florida's polls closed at 7 p.m., they announced that Clinton had become the first Democrat to carry the state in 20 years.
Clinton and Vice President Al Gore appeared before thousands of cheering supporters in Little Rock, Ark., at midnight to claim their victory. The rock-music atmosphere of 1992 was replaced with a red-carpeted, dignified ceremony, with the first family ushered on stage by Hail to the Chief.
The president said he had spoken with Dole by telephone and praised Dole and his running mate, Jack Kemp. "I ask you to join me in applause for his lifetime of service to the United States," he said, and the crowd cheered warmly. "I thanked him for his love of our country, his years of service," he said, adding, "I wish him well and Godspeed."
Clinton gave almost a mini-version of an inaugural address, spelling out goals of his second term, including campaign finance reform, which became a sore point in the closing weeks of the campaign amid revelations of huge infusions of cash into the Democratic campaign. "I am ready and willing to act, and I ask others to join me," he said.
Dole appeared before cheering supporters in Washington, D.C., just before 11:30 p.m. to concede the race. Smiling and relaxed, he said he had called the president to congratulate him.
When Dole mentioned Clinton, his supporters began to shout their disapproval, and he tried to silence them. His wife, Elizabeth, shook her head and frowned as the hoots continued.
"Let me say that I talked to President Clinton," Dole said. "We had a good visit, and I congratulated him. I have said repeatedly in this campaign that the president is my opponent, and not my enemy. And I wish him well, and I pledge my support in whatever advances the cause of a better America."
Earlier, as a final hallmark of the disorganization that has plagued the Dole campaign, press secretary Nelson Warfield issued a statement of concession _ then withdrew it as premature within the hour.
As Clinton racked up states, the architecture of his victory was remarkably similar to his 1992 win over President Bush. By late evening, in fact, Florida was the only state in the nation to have changed its vote from 1992, although Georgia, leaning toward Dole, and Arizona, leaning toward Clinton, were two other possible switchers.
Clinton was solid in the entire Northeast, solid in the Midwest except for Indiana, and he won up and down the West Coast.
Dole carried a stripe of central and western states, including Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and Wyoming, Idaho and Utah.
They split the South. Dole carried the Carolinas, Alabama, Mississippi and Virginia, while Clinton had Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky and Florida.
Tuesday's election matched Clinton, a president from the baby-boom generation, against Dole, almost certainly the last World War II veteran who will seek the White House.
Voters expressed respect for Dole's record and his integrity. A majority of them expressed worry over Clinton's scandals such as Whitewater. Yet many described themselves as uninspired by Dole.
Clinton, who ended 12 years of Republican rule when he defeated Bush in 1992, campaigned for re-election on the theme of "building a bridge to the 21st century."
He argued that unemployment, inflation and the deficit were down, and that the economy was improving. He offered them a shopping list for his second term, such as linking schools to the Internet.
Dole ran on the promise of large cuts in taxes on income and on capital gains, to "unleash the American economy." He said growth was too slow.
In the closing weeks, Dole began to hammer at ethical problems in the White House such as Whitewater, the FBI-file scandal and campaign contributions from foreign nationals.
While the Clinton campaign ran smoothly (with the exception of losing adviser Dick Morris in an August scandal), Dole went through several sets of advisers, and his campaign often wavered in focus.
Perot, meanwhile, came on strong in the final days of the race but never came close to having the influence he had in 1992, when he drew almost one-fifth of the popular vote.
Clinton led in the polls throughout the race. Neither the well-scripted August conventions nor the October debates changed the status quo.
The second term
Clinton now embarks on a second term that is sure to present him with challenges ranging from brewing scandals to the economy.
Whitewater, FBI files and the latest revelations of foreign campaign money will continue to be fodder for special prosecutors and congressional hearings. It would take an unprecedented period of economic growth for Clinton to complete his second term without a recession.
Meanwhile, Clinton has promised a balanced budget by the year 2002, based on optimistic projections that still would require almost draconian cuts.
He will face continued, even increased resistance from Congress, both from Republicans from the right, and from his own party from the left.
Around the globe, tension grows in Korea and in the U.S. relationship with China. U.S. troops remain in Bosnia; the future of Russian rule is unclear.
Clinton must face all of these things even as he loses several key players from his first term, from his chief of staff to inner White House advisers to Cabinet secretaries.
Throughout it all, lurking in the background, will be Clinton's role in the history books, and his political legacy _ namely, Gore's role as his party's potential nominee in the year 2000.
A two-year comeback
Tuesday's vote completed a remarkable turnaround for Clinton. Early in his term, he mishandled a series of issues such as gays in the military, and controversial appointments. His worst defeat came over health-care reform.
In 1994, voters repudiated Clinton by giving control of both houses of Congress to the Republicans for the first time in 40 years.
But that Congress, led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, proved even more unpopular. Clinton rose in the polls as Congress tried to slow Medicare and cut taxes simultaneously, then shut down the government.
Clinton also began to remake himself politically. He proclaimed in the State of the Union address in January 1996 that "the era of big government is over," adopting the Republicans' own rhetoric.
In choosing a nominee, Republicans had to do without the likes of Bill Bennett, Dick Cheney, Gingrich, Kemp, Colin Powell and Dan Quayle, all of whom sat out.
It was Dole, the party's longtime leader in the Senate, who emerged as the front-runner. But he had to turn back a crowded field led by Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander and conservative commentator Pat Buchanan.
_ Times researchers Kitty Bennett and John Martin contributed to this report.