AUSTIN, Texas - George W. Bush had only about an hour early yesterday to savor the title of president-elect before he was yanked back into a lonely corner of political limbo, waiting to see if the title will be taken away.
The Texas governor told the nation yesterday that he is confident that a recount of Florida votes will confirm his victory in the contest against Vice President Al Gore as early as this afternoon.
"We feel very good about what our titles are going to be," Bush told a group of reporters brought into the governor's mansion, where he and his wife, Laura, were having lunch with his ticket-mate, former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, and Cheney's wife, Lynne. "The results are out there; they're now being certified. We are pleased with the support."
Yet the strain of the long night and the emotional roller-coaster ride of appearing to lose, then appearing to win, then being confronted with more days of uncertainty before the Florida result is certified, was evident.
Asked whether he felt like a president-elect, Bush said: "No. I feel like a man who worked my heart out and put out a positive message and a person who is looking for a quick resolution of the ballots in the state of Florida."
The Republican nominee also made clear his annoyance with Gore, who had called Bush to concede early yesterday morning only to call back about an hour later to retract the concession as Bush's advantage in the state narrowed to a few hundred votes.
"Here I was fully prepared to give a speech thanking my supporters," Bush said referring to the election-night crowd that had been waiting hours for him in the cold rain outside the Texas capitol. "Then he called and withdrew his earlier comments and here we sit."
At an earlier session with reporters yesterday, Bush declined to comment on a potentially more troubling issue that could undermine his presidency if he makes it to the White House: Gore appeared to have won the popular vote, by collecting perhaps 200,000 more than Bush out of the total cast.
Winning the state of Florida would secure a Bush victory in the electoral college, however, giving him the presidency under the Constitution. Two other presidential candidates have lost the popular vote but won the Electoral College vote much earlier in the nation's history.
The Bush campaign contended yesterday that their candidate claimed a mandate by running so well against an incumbent with a strong economy behind him.
"By all rights it should not be close in this election," said Karen P. Hughes, Bush's communications director. "That it appears that Governor Bush may prevail is a strong testimony to the power of his ideas."
Celebrations were already under way among the small circle of Bush family members and top staff who watched the election returns in the Texas governor's mansion when Gore's second call came.
The candidate's brother - Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida - endured a similar topsy-turvy evening. At first, it appeared that his inability to deliver the state decisively for the Republican ticket had spelled its defeat.
"Needless to say there was some consternation with Florida's governor," the presidential candidate said, describing the reaction to the original network projection that the state had gone to Gore.
Then there was jubilation when that projection was reversed, and, finally, uncertainty. Jeb Bush told reporters yesterday afternoon, "I hope I never have to go through another evening like I have, and I think the Gore family would say the same thing. It was one of the most amazing and emotionally intense evenings of my life."
Part of the younger brother's task during those early morning hours was to advise the candidate that he should not proceed with a victory speech until Gore had publicly acknowledged defeat.
Today, the Florida governor finds himself in the awkward spot of onlooker in the Florida recount, having recused himself from participating as he otherwise would as governor.
As the Democrats speak of voter irregularities and Gore urges that the matter be resolved "without any rush to judgment," the Republican candidate is signaling that he's willing to be patient but still eager to get on with the business of running the country.
After sleeping three hours, Bush began phoning Republican congressional leaders and supporters around the nation. He bid goodbye to his parents, former President George Bush and Barbara Bush, who returned to Houston, after what they acknowledged had been an agonizing evening.
At lunch, he plotted strategy with his would-be vice president, Cheney.
"We look forward to getting this matter resolved as quickly as possible so we can get on with the transition," said Cheney, an experienced Washington hand but a lackluster campaigner whose greatest service to Bush was expected to be in governing.
While delicately hinting that Gore was acting like a sore loser, Bush sought to project himself as the bigger man. He brought a dignified, square-shouldered bearing to his first meeting with the press since voting had ended.
"America has a long tradition of uniting once elections are over," he said. "Secretary Cheney and I will do everything in our power to unite the nation to call upon the best. To bring people together after one of the most exciting elections in our nation's history."