WASHINGTON - President Bush claimed a re-election mandate Wednesday after a record 59 million Americans chose him over Democrat John Kerry and voted to expand Republican control of Congress as well.
He pledged to pursue his agenda on taxes and Iraq while seeking "the broad support of all Americans."
Kerry conceded defeat in make-or-break Ohio rather than launch a legal fight reminiscent of the contentious Florida recount of four years ago. "I hope that we can begin the healing," the Massachusetts senator said.
Claiming a second term denied his father, George H.W. Bush, the president struck a conciliatory tone, too. "A new term is a new opportunity to reach out to the whole nation," he said, speaking directly to Kerry's supporters.
"To make this nation stronger and better, I will need your support and I will work to earn it," he said. "I will do all I can do to deserve your trust."
It was a warm-and-fuzzy close to one of the longest, most negative presidential races in a generation.
Bush didn't use the word mandate, but Vice President Dick Cheney did, and the president's intention was clear as he ticked off a familiar list of second-term goals: overhaul the tax code and Social Security at home while waging war in Iraq and elsewhere to stem terror.
Bush stands to reshape the federal judiciary, starting with an aging Supreme Court that voted 5-4 to award him Florida four years ago. In all branches of government, the GOP now holds a solid, if not permanent, ruling majority.
Bush's vote totals were the biggest ever and his slice of the vote, 51 percent, made him the first president to claim a majority since 1988 when his father won 53 percent against Democrat Michael Dukakis.
Like Dukakis, Kerry is a Massachusetts politician who was labeled a liberal by a Bush. This president also called Kerry a flip-flopping opportunist who would fight feebly against terror.
None of that rancor was evident Wednesday, when Kerry called Bush to concede the race. He told Bush the country needed to be united, and Bush agreed. But the numbers suggest the country is deeply split.
Bush's victory ensures Republican dominance of virtually every quarter of the U.S. political system for years to come - the White House, Congress and the federal judiciary. Democrats pored over election results and sadly determined that the GOP base was bigger, more rural, suburban and Hispanic than they had ever imagined.
They looked within their own party, and found plenty of Democrats to blame - Kerry, his running mate John Edwards, their layers of consultants and legions of former Bill Clinton aides. The jockeying began in earnest for the 2008 race, with Edwards signaling his ambitions by pressing Kerry to wage a legal fight for Ohio. Democrats love to fight the GOP, particularly those Democrats who vote in primaries and caucuses.
"You can be disappointed, but you cannot walk away," Edwards told supporters at Kerry's concession. "This fight has just begun."
Supporters of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, herself a potential candidate in 2008, accused Edwards of posturing.
Kerry himself showed no signs of exiting the political arena. "I'll never stop fighting for you," he told backers.
Still, it was a grim day for Democrats.
Party strategists had longed hoped to supplant their political losses in the Midwest and South with growth in the Hispanic-rich Western states, but those plans were put in doubt Tuesday night. Exit polls suggested that Bush had increased his minority share of the Hispanic vote since 2000.
One-third of Hispanics said they were born-against Christians and nearly 20 percent listed moral values as their top issue, suggesting they have more in common with Republicans than Democrats.
The election also vindicated Bush's unorthodox strategy of governing from the right and then targeting his voters with a volunteer-driven organization run through his campaign headquarters. Kerry played to the center and relied on a loosely knit conglomerate of liberal groups who paid get-out-the-vote workers.
Americans Coming Together, the Media Fund and other liberal special interest groups spent more than $200 million to defeat Bush. Kerry spent tens of millions more, and what did he get? Just one state won by Bush in 2000, New Hampshire, switched to the Democratic column this year.
Young voters didn't increase their turnout as Democrats had hoped. Neither did blacks or union members, two keys to the party's base.
Bush, meanwhile, saw a surge in rural and evangelical voters, according to strategists on both sides. The rural vote, once reliably Democratic, swelled in size and supported Bush over Kerry.
In Ohio, exit polls suggested the rural vote increased from 15 percent of the electorate in 2000 to 25 percent on Tuesday. Rural voters backed Bush over Kerry 60 percent to 40.
In Ohio and Florida, the two most important states Election Night, Democrats said they met their turnout targets, only to see Bush's forces trounce them. They said state ballot measures to ban gay marriage may have driven GOP voters to the polls.
The most stinging defeat was in Ohio, which may no longer be considered a swing state. With 232,000 jobs lost under Bush and state voters uneasy about Iraq, it was as ripe as it will ever be for Democrats, strategists said.
Ohio's 20 electoral votes gave Bush 279 in the Associated Press count, nine more than the 270 needed for victory. Kerry had 252 electoral votes, with Iowa's seven unsettled.
Bush beat Kerry by more than 3 million votes.