WASHINGTON (AP) â€” When Al Gore and George W. Bush look for an early clue Tuesday night to foretell who will celebrate and who will concede their long-locked struggle for the White House, they will check the count in Florida.
It is the first major swing-state prize to close its polls, at 7 p.m. EST, and, perhaps, give the first sign of a trend, Republican or Democratic, presidential and congressional.
Should the vote be as closely divided as the public opinion polls, Florida also could point to a long ballot count to settle what has been billed as the closest contest in 40 years.
That said, there were no safe guesses to be made as the campaign clamor yielded to the hush of the voting booth. The states that will write the presidential future are obvious â€” the big, swing states where neither nominee had a clear advantage in the polls and where both campaigned hardest.
``We're going to watch them all, but I think that Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania will be among those that we'll watch,'' Vice President Gore said Monday. ``And Missouri and Wisconsin.''
``We feel very good about Florida,'' said Karl Rove, Bush's strategist, of the state where Bush's brother Jeb is governor. George W. probably was joking when he said it would be a chilly Thanksgiving if the Republican ticket doesn't win Florida and its 25 electoral votes.
Polls close at 8 p.m. EST in three other big battlegrounds, Pennsylvania, with 23 electoral votes, Michigan, with 18, and Missouri, with 11.
A clear outcome for either nominee in most or all of these states would point to the winner. A split decision or margins so close that the states can't be called until late Tuesday night, or even Wednesday, would validate the forecasts of a contest tighter than any since John F. Kennedy defeated Richard M. Nixon by 0.2 percent of the popular vote in 1960.
But that comes with a caveat. Early signs can become detours, as happened in 1960, too. Kennedy took a commanding lead in the East, and commentators, on television and in early edition print, rated it a sweep or a landslide â€” then watched as his margin all but vanished in returns from the Midwest and the West. Kennedy's victory was not assured until almost noon the next day, when Nixon conceded.
In the struggle for Congress, early evidence that Republicans are holding their narrow House edge, or that it is in jeopardy, may come from Indiana and Kentucky, where the polls close first, at 6 p.m. EST, with Democrats aiming for upsets in five Republican districts. There are three more relatively close contests in which Republicans seek to hold House seats in Florida.
Should Democrats start registering gains in those states, they could be on track to pick up the eight seats needed to overturn GOP House control after six years. But the bottom line on the House is not likely to be written before Wednesday. At least six West Coast House seats are too close to foretell, and could hold the balance of power.
In the Senate, early indications of whether Democrats have a chance at the five-seat gain needed for control will come in Florida, where they are trying to win a vacant seat that belonged to a Republican, and in Virginia, where Democratic Sen. Charles S. Robb is trying to hold off Republican George Allen. Democrats need to win both to nourish even a long-shot chance at control.
Between Texas Gov. Bush and Gore, there could be other early indicators.
The polls close at 7:30 p.m. EST in West Virginia, where Bush has a chance at overturning a Democratic presidential pattern dating back three elections.
They close at 8 p.m. EST in Gore's Tennessee, where he has never lost an election and has had to campaign to defend his home state against a stiff Bush challenge.
In other states that start reporting their votes by 8 p.m., the Bush column should include Georgia, Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio and, of course, Texas, among the big electoral vote contests. Gore is favored in states including Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland and Massachusetts.
An upset that breaks that pattern in any of those early states would be a powerful, promising signal for the nominee who gains it â€” and a blow to the conventional wisdom that has proven wrong so often before in this campaign,
Gore led the final polls in the biggest state prize, California, with 54 electoral votes, where voting ends at 11 p.m. EST.
Public opinion polls and both candidates say the race is razor close, but that doesn't make it so.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan was only 3 percentage points ahead in the polls, too close to call. He won by 10 points, so dominant that President Carter conceded hours before the West Coast polls had closed.
What's expected is not always what happens, and the early signs are clues, not proof.
The close-call expectations about the 2000 election have led to suggestions of a split decision, where one candidate wins the popular vote and the other the real election that is settled by electoral votes, awarded state by state, no matter the margin of victory.
That has not happened since 1888, though it could again.
EDITOR'S NOTE â€” Walter R. Mears has reported on Washington and national politics for The Associated Press for more than 35 years.