WASHINGTON - After closing out a torrid campaign swing, visiting 15 states in a week to try to give a last-minute boost to Republican candidates, President Bush did yesterday what any political junkie might do: He awoke, voted at the local firehouse and settled in to watch election returns into the night.
Bush made an enormous personal investment in many races, putting his reputation on the line by repeatedly visiting such states as South Dakota, Missouri and Minnesota to try to influence tight Senate races. He also made numerous trips to Florida to lend support to his brother Jeb, who was re-elected as governor last night.
Shortly after dinner, the president placed a call to congratulate his younger brother and to tell him that he was proud of him, aides said.
Bush spoke publicly only once yesterday, just after casting his ballot in the early morning at the tiny Crawford Volunteer Fire Department, near his sprawling Texas ranch. His fellow voters there were subjected to unusual Election Day treatment: a trip through metal detectors because they were casting ballots alongside the First Neighbor.
"I hope people vote," Bush, a figure of informality in blue jeans and a leather jacket, said outside the fire hall. "I'm encouraging all people across the country to vote."
Asked to assess his party's chances, Bush, alongside his wife, Laura, gave a thumbs-up. Asked specifically about the Republicans' hopes of taking control of the Senate, he waggled that thumb sideways as if to say, "so-so."
The president declined to answer questions about other topics, such as United Nations debate over a new resolution to disarm Iraq or the CIA's killing of six al-Qaida operatives in Yemen on Sunday.
The president returned to Washington in the midafternoon. Aides said he invited several Republican congressional and political leaders to the White House residence for dinner to help the Bushes celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary.
The dinner guests included House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois; Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi; Rep. Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia, head of the National Republican Congressional Committee; Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee; and Marc Racicot, the Republican national chairman.
Bush planned to watch television as results trickled in, aides said, and was to speak frequently by phone with Karl Rove, his top political adviser.
The president, aides say, has much at stake in the eventual outcome of the congressional races. If Republicans could control both chambers of Congress, they say, Bush's agenda would stand a far better chance of passing over the next two years.
Some analysts, though, predict that Bush would actually stand a better chance for re-election in 2004 if Democrats controlled Congress, thus allowing him to run against an opposition agenda.
But such a possibility did nothing to hold Bush back from serving as the Republican campaigner in chief. This year, he shattered presidential fund-raising records and dedicated the bulk of his recent attention to campaigning, shifting away from the Iraq debate and a crisis over North Korea's nuclear weapons development.
Bush spent the past two weeks in campaign hyper-drive, flying to up to four states in a day. He made multiple visits to South Dakota on behalf of Rep. John Thune, who posed a vigorous challenge to Sen. Tim Johnson. The race was in many ways a proxy battle for the Washington power struggle between Bush and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, whose home state is South Dakota.
The president also injected himself into the Senate battle in Minnesota, which he visited Sunday even as the state mourned the loss of Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone. Bush expressed sympathy over Wellstone's death - and then lent support to Republican Norm Coleman in his race against the Democrats' replacement for Wellstone, former Vice President Walter F. Mondale.
Ari Fleischer, Bush's spokesman, said yesterday that the president was optimistic that his involvement in such tight races had made some difference.
White House aides have crafted a message that, once results are in, will allow Bush to declare victory no matter what. They argue that even if the Republicans lost a few seats in the House and Senate, it would still be a remarkable achievement, given that the president's party typically suffers big losses in the midterm election in a president's first term.
Aides also said they were bracing for Democratic assertions that Republican losses should be regarded as a repudiation of Bush's agenda. They said they were ready to counter those assertions.
"If this goes well for Bush, he'll interpret it as a mandate," said Sarah Binder, a political scientist at George Washington University. "If things don't turn out as well, he can plausibly say, `Well, I wasn't on the ballot.'"
Yesterday was the first day in a week that Bush was not standing in airport hangars or convention halls, delivering the same stump speech over and over, with only the particular Republican candidate changing from site to site.
He broke the monotony yesterday and was determined to find ways to relax, aides said.
On the way out of the fire hall in Crawford, he chatted and posed for photos with 4-year-old Sarah Hobbs. What exactly she said to the president was barely audible. But apparently, it had nothing to do with his attendance at all the campaign events and everything to do with attendance at her birthday party.
"I think the invitation got lost in the mail," Bush told her.