WASHINGTON - In agonizing doubt, Americans waited for a crucial Florida recount to settle the election between George W. Bush and Al Gore amid rival claims of victory and the possibility it will be days or weeks before the nation knows its next president.
Gore said the election mystery must be resolved ''deliberately and without any rush to judgment.'' Bush urged a speedy resolution and said, ''When that happens I'll be the president-elect.''
Bush's brother Jeb, the governor of Florida, said the recount of nearly 6 million state ballots would be completed by Thursday evening. However, he said the final outcome might have to await a count of overseas ballots that could take 10 days.
Democrats said it might take even longer to clear up alleged election irregularities in Florida.
''I can't say with certainty when this will be over,'' said Gore campaign chairman William Daley. He added that, ''This is the beginning of the process, not the end of the process.''
Near deadlock, Tuesday's election was one of the closest in history. Gore held a tiny lead in the national popular vote but he and Gore both were achingly close to the 270 electoral votes required to win the White House. Florida's 25 electoral votes would put either candidate over the top.
The initial Florida totals, including all absentee ballots received so far, showed Bush ahead with 2,909,135 votes and Gore with 2,907,351 votes - a difference of 1,784. A recount was mandatory because the margin was less than one-half of 1 percentage point.
Partial but unofficial results from a recount Wednesday of 32 of Florida's 67 counties showed Gore cutting into Bush's lead by almost half.
Gore sent Daley and former Secretary of State Warren Christopher to Florida to oversee the recount. The vice president's aides were privately making the case that Gore's popular-vote lead gives him standing to contest the recount if state officials overlook voting irregularities.
As Democrats searched for potential ballot abuses and questioned the motives of Florida's GOP secretary of state, Gore's staff said a legal challenge was one option.
Even before the recount, Gore's campaign was eyeing legal options for forcing a new vote in heavily Democratic Palm Beach County, where confusion over how to complete the ballots may have boosted Pat Buchanan's totals, a senior Gore adviser said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Meanwhile, county officials said 19,120 ballots in the presidential race were thrown out before they were counted because voters picked more than one candidate. Only 3,783 voters made that mistake on the U.S. Senate portion of the ballot.
Gore said it was ''crucial that the American people have full faith and confidence in the electoral process from which the president derives authority.''
Daley said his boss would win Florida. ''We believe when those votes are counted and that process is complete, totally complete, Al Gore will have won the Electoral College and the popular vote and therefore will be the next president,'' Daley said.
Bush dispatched former Secretary of State James A. Baker III to oversee the GOP monitoring team in Florida.
If Bush ends up winning Florida and Gore's lead in the national popular vote holds, Bush would be the fourth man in history - the first in more than a century - to win the presidency while coming in second in popular votes.
Regardless of who wins, the next president will face a Congress deeply divided by modest Democratic gains, with Republicans holding thinner majorities in the House and Senate.
Saying that neither side could claim a mandate, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said, ''This was a classic status quo election.''
President Clinton, with 10 weeks left in office, pointed to the razor-thin results. ''No American will ever be able to seriously say again, ''My vote doesn't count.''
''The American people have now spoken, but it's going to take a little while to determine exactly what they said,'' Clinton said. ''The process for that is in motion, and the rest of us will have to let it play out.'' He spoke on his return to the White House after celebrating the election of his wife Hillary to the Senate from New York.
Anticipating victory, Bush was preparing to announce key roles in his administration for retired Gen. Colin Powell, likely to be named secretary of state, and former Transportation Secretary Andrew Card, probably as White House chief of staff. Bush running mate Dick Cheney will head the Republican transition team, aides said.
Gore also thought about his transition. Aides said his first decision would be what to do with Daley, a natural for transition director or White House chief of staff.
Americans cast more than 101 million votes, the second most in history behind the 104 million of 1992. But the race came down to Florida and a few thousand people.
By late Wednesday, Bush had won 29 states for 246 electoral votes. Gore had won 18 states plus the District of Columbia for 255. New Mexico and Oregon were too close to call, but wouldn't make a difference.
With all precincts reporting unofficial results, Gore had 48,707,413 votes and Bush had 48,609,640 votes - with just 97,773 votes separating them. Only three times before had a presidential candidate lost the popular vote but won the Electoral College, the last time in 1888 when Benjamin Harrison defeated Grover Cleveland.