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CAMPAIGN TRAILS END AS THE VOTING BEGINS

SHARE CAMPAIGN TRAILS END AS THE VOTING BEGINS

It's finally Election Day, and America is choosing between Bill Clinton's conduct in the White House and Bob Dole's promise of a more disciplined stewardship to carry the nation into the next century.

The nation voted for the next president and decided, in 435 House races and 34 Senate seats, what sort of Congress he would have to work with.In democracy's ritual of self-renewal, Americans voted in a shingled veterans' hall by the harbor in South Portland, Maine; in a garage behind the Jacob F. Ruth funeral home in Chestnut Hill, Pa.; in a yellow brick library in Marietta, Ga.; and in Minneapolis' Fire Station 15, where the pumper truck had to be moved outside to make room.

Whatever their presidential prospects, Republican leaders seemed cocky about retaining control of Congress for only the first time since Calvin Coolidge occupied the White House six decades ago.

A number of congressional races were expected to be close. The outcome could hinge on whether runoffs will be required in a handful of races in Texas.

Of the three major presidential candidates, Ross Perot was the first to vote. He drove himself and a daughter to a recreation center in Dallas and said of the campaign: "Never dull, always something going on."

Dole, speaking in the 3 a.m. darkness in Harry Truman's hometown of Independence, Mo., refused to give up hope that he would achieve the prediction of a banner in front of him: "Upset of the Century."

Before taking off to vote in his hometown of Russell, Kan., the Republican candidate summed up his feelings Tuesday: "It's unique, obviously, and exciting in a way. And I'll be proud of my vote. I've worked pretty hard and I'm honored to be the standard bearer for the party. It's a great responsibility and challenge. I think about all those things."

Arriving in Kansas, Dole appeared choked by emotion as a handful of local residents greeted him with hugs and hand shakes. "It's uphill, but it can be done," he told reporters.

Haley Barbour, the GOP chairman, said Dole was closing "this campaign on a tear and Bill Clinton is closing it on a slide. I don't rule out Bob Dole winning this election."

But for days Republican ads argued, in unspoken ac-know-ledge-ment that Dole's prospects were poor, that the country should not give Clinton a blank check.

"I think probably we have a greater chance of actually increasing the number of seats we will have," said Newt Gingrich, the Republican House speaker whose scorched-earth speeches made him the symbolic issue in contests across the nation.

Barbour called increased Republican strength in the Senate "likely." Close races abounded; the South was the key.

In Georgia, voter Mike Collier, 30, a computer programmer from Norcross, said he voted for Clinton even though he wasn't fond of his performance in office. His reasoning: "It's better to keep somebody who's not too terrible in."

In Michigan, social worker Diana Ruckert, 25, said she voted for Dole even though she knew the polls show him trailing. "That's what voting's all about," she said.

Clinton seemed ever more confident of becoming the first re-elected Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt's 1936 landslide, and the polls gave him reason. His goal reached beyond victory - he wanted to win with more than 50 percent of the vote, a target denied him in 1992 and made difficult again by the insurgent candidacy of billionaire Ross Perot.

Clinton won 43 percent in 1992 to then President Bush's 37 percent and Perot's 19 percent.

The president was said to be looking ahead to a second term, setting up a transition team that may release a round of Cabinet resignations as early as this week.

A chilled but enthusiastic crowd welcomed Clinton and his team at 2:30 a.m. in Little Rock, Ark. In speeches on the final day of his final national campaign - he joked that he might run later for school board - Clinton appealed for a Democratic Congress. "Your vote is going to decide whether we return Congress to a majority of people who have prepared to shut the government down," he said.

Dole, his voice cracking, raced across four time zones as he headed toward Russell, Kan. His main message - he could be trusted while Clinton could not. "My voice may change, but I still keep my word," he said.

Perot slapped Clinton's ethics in a Texas speech and a final binge of television speeches, run election eve on the major networks. "We are headed toward a second Watergate and a constitutional crisis," Perot said, inaccurately claiming Clinton was facing "pending criminal charges."

Clinton's administration is under investigation by the Whitewater prosecutor and has been under fire for accepting questionable foreign donations. No federal charges have been levied against the president.

On Monday, as dusk approached at the University of Kentucky, Clinton told supporters, "This is the last day of my last campaign."

"I will never seek office again," he said, then added: "Unless I go home and run for the school board some day."

As they traditionally do, the folks in two New Hampshire hamlets gathered at midnight to give the country the first returns: Dixville Notch gave Dole 18 votes to eight for Clinton and one for Perot. At Hart's Location, 50 miles away, it was Dole 13, Clinton 12 and Perot four.

Across the nation, turnout is expected to be low. It could fall close to 50.1 percent of citizens over age 18, the rate recorded in 1988, the lowest in modern times.

Four years ago, spurred by Perot, turnout reached 55 percent.

In places, the voting was brisk Tuesday morning. More than 100 people were waiting in line when the polls opened at Westover High School in Albany, Ga. In Louisville, Ky., Martha Johnson, waiting with 20 other voters, said, `I can't believe these lines. I guess it shows a lot of people think this is probably one of the most important races in a long time."

In the Cat Creek precinct in Garfield County of eastern Montana, voters cast their ballots in the bathroom of an abandoned one-room schoolhouse, a 60-foot trailer house. The bathroom was used for privacy.

Election judge Kathleen Edwards, a 72-year-old ranch wife with wind-whipped hair and a ruddy complexion, said she expected 100 percent turnout in the precinct. Her husband, Lawrence "Hoolie" Edwards, rattled off the first names of ranchers as they arrived.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

5 bellwether battlegrounds to watch tonight

Five key states to watch in Tuesday's presidential election:

KENTUCKY: A swing state with an early poll closing - 4 p.m. MST. If President Clinton is going to win big, it would likely start here. Late polls showed a dead heat, though Democrats were worried that Clinton's poll standing was frozen in the mid-40s.

OHIO: No Republican has ever won the White House without winning Ohio, and it is the most Republican of the big Midwest industrial states. Late polls showed Clinton's lead slipping to six points or so. A Clinton win here would deal a serious blow to Bob Dole's comeback hopes. Polls close there at 5:30 p.m. MST.

o FLORIDA: Jimmy Carter carried the state in 1976, but Florida voted Republican in the four presidential races since. Dole's comeback math doesn't work without Florida in the GOP column. The state was a dead heat heading into the final days. Polls close there at 5 p.m.

TENNESSEE: With 11 electoral votes, it is not decisive in either campaign's road map to 270 electoral votes. But for Vice President Al Gore, the fight here is for pride and bragging rights. The state was a major force in the Republican rout in 1994; Gore returned home Monday to work to keep the state in the Democratic column this time. Late polls showed a narrow Clinton edge. Polls close at 6 p.m. MST.

CALIFORNIA: With 54 electoral votes, one fifth of what it takes to win the White House, this is the biggest prize in presidential politics. Clinton was heavily favored throughout the year, but Dole made a late push and hoped to benefit from turnout for a ballot initiative that would repeal state affirmative action programs. Polls close there at 9 p.m. MST.