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AUSTIN, Texas -- More than 24 hours have now passed since the final ballots were cast in the closest presidential election in a generation. And for the first time in at least 100 years, the winner is still unknown. While officials in the state of Florida continued the painstaking task of recounting nearly six million crucial votes, Democrat Al Gore emerged victorious in the popular vote contest, outpolling Republican George W. Bush by some 97,000 votes out of 101 million cast. That would be the closest popular margin since James A. Garfield was elected president in 1880. Election officers in the Sunshine State began the required process of recounting ballots yesterday after preliminary returns indicated that Bush had defeated Gore in that state by the very thinnest of margins -- less than 1,784 votes among a total of about 5.8 million ballots cast. According to Florida law, any election decided by less than one-half of one percent must automatically go to a recount. That process began in the morning, as observers from both campaigns and the news media descended upon the state to ensure that the process was conducted under the fairest of conditions. After 32 of Florida's 67 counties were recounted yesterday, Gore had gained 843 votes, cutting Bush's lead to 941 votes.Officials have said the recount will be completed by 7 p.m. this evening. But because of widespread reports of voter irregularities throughout the state, what happens after that is anyone's guess. Bush yesterday expressed confidence that he would be named the president-elect after the recount is completed today. ''It's going to be resolved in a quick way,'' Bush said yesterday. ''I'm confident that [Dick Cheney] and I will be the president-elect and the vice president-elect.'' If Bush ends up winning Florida and Gore's lead in the national popular vote holds, Bush would be the fourth man in history -- and the first in more than a century -- to win the presidency despite coming in second in popular votes. From the very start of the presidential campaigns, the eventual outcome of the Florida race had been considered crucial in determining the next president of the United States. But the sheer magnitude of that importance wasn't known until late Tuesday night, when an extremely tight national race made it apparent that Florida's 25 electoral votes would inevitably decide which man would move into the house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Should the current vote balance remain in Bush's favor when all votes are recounted -- and when a number of overseas absentee ballots are added into the mix -- the Texas governor would gain Florida's 25 electoral votes, bringing his total to 271. A candidate must obtain 270 votes in the Electoral College in order to assume the presidency. But information coming from both the campaigns and individuals in Florida indicate that the contest may not be quite over when the formal recount is wrapped up later today. Allegations of voting irregularities have popped up all over Florida since Tuesday morning, opening up the possibility of some kind of legal action once the election is finally called. In the most notable charge, about 3,400 voters in heavily-Democratic Palm Beach County have complained that a misleading ballot led them to vote for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan by mistake, rather than Gore. Some of them have already filed suit against the state. Officials from the Gore campaigns have not yet definitively said what they plan to do should the election be lost with these issues still up in the air, but Gore himself said he would respect the recount and all legal processes. "We still do not know the outcome," Gore said yesterday at a midday press conference, adding that he would abide by the Constitutional mechanism of the Electoral College choosing the president. Bush said he was confident the total would stand and promised that he and running mate Dick Cheney ''will do everything in our power to unite the nation to bring the people together after one of the most exciting elections in our nation's history.'' Bush chose a relaxed setting outside the Governor's Mansion. Gore opted for a stern-looking lectern and a row of U.S. flags as his backdrop, promising a dignified transition ''no matter what the outcome.'' President Clinton weighed in, too, saying that this election should put to rest any doubts that every vote counts. ''The American people have spoken, but it's going to take a little while to determine exactly what they said," he said after returning to the White House from New York, where First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton was elected to the Senate. In Congress, the outlook was much more clear by last night. Republicans retained control of the Senate, but lost seats and could be stuck with the smallest possible majority. With the race in Washington still undecided, Republicans hold a 50-49 advantage. In the House, the GOP lost at least two seats but will cling to a razor-thin advantage. ''It won't be easy for whoever is president," Republican strategist Scott Reed said. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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