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Peaks and valleys

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The Dems' long evening at Sunset Station

The San Antonio Democrats' victory celebration at Sunset Station officially kicks off at 8 p.m., but it takes a while to get rolling. By the time it does, euphoria is like oxygen on a mountain summit: in very short supply.

At 8:05, with about 55 local Democrats watching the returns on a mammoth screen in the middle of the revamped train depot, NBC has George W. Bush ahead of John Kerry in the crucial state of Ohio by more than 26,000 votes, with 5 percent of the precincts reporting. The crowd is quiet: not necessarily worried, but palpably pensive.

Two poster boards near the entrance are filled with pro-Kerry campaign buttons: "I Refuse to Vote for a Son of a Bush," "We Didn't Elect Him, We Don't Have to Keep Him," and "When Clinton Lied, Nobody Died."

Paul B. Javior, a 68-year-old Demo diehard who recalls voting for John Kennedy and John Connelly ("the two Johns) in 1960, created the buttons. He's cautiously optimistic.

"There are some indications that Kerry is ahead in the electoral vote," Javior says. "I don't think he'll take the popular vote, but I think we'll win with the electoral vote." Arguing that Ohio could be the new Florida, he adds, "It all hinges on Ohio. It could last for days if there's a dispute. I doubt we'll find out tonight."

A woman enters the election party clutching a printout of a Zogby tracking poll, projecting a Kerry win with 311 electoral votes. "It's all over the Internet," she says of such projections. She talks of seeing Ted Kennedy and Democratic strategist Joe Trippi on television, "and they both looked very happy."

At 8:50, however, NBC shows footage of a positively giddy Bush watching the returns in the White House with his family. The woman says: "I just know Kerry's going to win. Unless they steal it."

By 9 p.m., Sunset Station is getting packed. The most boisterous display thus far occurs when local coverage shows the proposed tax increase for a VIA transportation district leading by a margin of 58 to 41 percent.

Alfredo Hernandez, an avid watcher of the results, reveals that he voted for Bush in 2000, but feels let down by the administration, particularly Bush's handling of the economy and health care. "I'm a little worried, but hopeful," Hernandez says about the presidential returns. "I still have faith."

At 9:03, the crowd roars when Kerry is shown to be leading by a wide margin in Pennsylvania and by a razor-thin 7,000 votes in New Hampshire. Nonetheless, there's a growing disconnect between anecdotal and exit-poll accounts of a robust Kerry showing, and the actual tabulations appearing on-screen, which all point to Bush. At this point, Bush leads in the electoral race, 182-112.

Jack Martinez, who worked to get out the local vote for Kerry, says: "Bush ran a campaign based on fear, and I think that worked for them. I talked to a lot of people out there, and they were just stuck on that, the safety issue." This was Martinez's first time as a campaign volunteer, a decision he explains by saying of Bush, "I don't like being lied to." Martinez thinks Bush will win, but clings to hope that Kerry "can pull it out."

At 9:43, NBC's Brian Williams breaks down polls showing that despite the much-hyped efforts of the hip-hop community and the Bruce Springsteen-led Vote for Change Tour, young people came out in the same dismal numbers as in 2000. What's more, young people who did make it to the polls didn't necessarily vote for change. Among 18-29 year-olds, 49 percent opposed the war in Iraq, and 49 percent supported it.

At 9:50, the Sunset Station crowd, obviously starved for good news, whoops it up when Pennsylvania's 21 electoral votes fall into the Kerry column. At the same time, however, Arizona goes to Bush.

At 10:15, Democratic activist John Courage takes to the mike and commends key volunteers, adding, "So far, all our state representatives and county officers have been re-elected.

"I'm getting a little old for this, so it's good to see so many young people here, like the Generation Democrats. Kerry's going to win tonight and we're going to clean up Washington, but next we have to clean up the state house."

Bush steadily inches toward the magic 270 total, and the crowd slowly, almost imperceptibly, starts to thin. At 11:05, at the very moment that the raucous band Panic Division kicks into its first song, the Democrats erupt, not for the band, but for Oregon's seven electoral votes, which go to Kerry. "Thanks, guys," the band's lead singer says. "This is a little different crowd for us. A lot different. But we got better applause tonight than we usually get. I'm not sure if that was for us, though."

By Gilbert Garcia


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