US President George W. Bush hailed a historic victory that consolidated his grip on the US for the next four years and pledged to heal the wounds of a bitterly divided nation.
Addressing the millions of supporters who voted for the Democrat challenger Senator John Kerry, Bush devoted the main part of his acceptance speech on Wednesday night to a direct plea for unity.
"Today I want to speak to every person who voted for my opponent. To make this nation stronger and better I will need your support and I will work to earn it. I will do all I can do to deserve your trust," he said.
Bush praised the vigor of Kerry and the campaign he fought, and appeared to go out of his way to draw some of the poison which has punctuated the bitterly fought contest.
"Earlier today Senator Kerry called with congratulations. We had a really good phone call. He was very gracious. Senator Kerry waged a spirited campaign and he and his supporters can be proud of their efforts," Bush said.
He said that "one country, one constitution and one future ... binds us."
Bush ended his short speech to an ecstatic audience of the party faithful in the Reagan Center in Washington by saying: "A campaign has ended and the United States of America goes forward with confidence and faith. I see a great day coming for our country and I am eager for the work ahead. God bless you and may God bless America."
The moment of victory was delayed until midday as the two sides battled over the vote count in the decisive state, Ohio. But Kerry was forced to concede defeat in a short telephone call to the White House when it became clear Bush's lead in the state was insurmountable.
"We had a good conversation, and we talked about the danger of division in our country and the need -- the desperate need for unity, for finding the common ground, coming together," Kerry said in his concession speech a few hours later in Boston.
After the 2000 election, its controversial recount and the intervention of the supreme court, most Democrats believed they had been robbed of the presidency. Kerry acknowledged that he had been beaten, and that even if all the yet uncounted ballots in Ohio were taken into consideration, they would not reverse the final outcome -- a majority for the president in the electoral college which ultimately determines who inhabits the White House.
"In America, it is vital that every vote counts, and that every vote be counted. But the outcome should be decided by voters, not a protracted legal process," the Massachusetts senator told a crowd of supporters.
"I would not give up this fight if there was a chance that we would prevail. But it is now clear that even when all the provisional ballots are counted, which they will be, there won't be enough outstanding votes for us to be able to win Ohio," he said.
Four years ago, Bush scrambled into the White House by virtue of the quirks of the US electoral system, despite losing the popular vote by half a million. By contrast, on Wednesday he became the first president to be elected by a clear popular majority since his father in 1988, defeating Kerry by more than 3 million votes. The Republican party also increased its senate majority from a scant two votes to 10. Tom Daschle, who led the opposition to Bush on Capitol Hill for the past four years, lost his seat in a humiliating defeat in his home state, South Dakota.