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Networks Cautious in Declaring Obama Winner

If you’re to believe the Associated Press story that ran on the front page of today’s Buffalo News, then the 2008 presidential election was close to being decided at 8 tonight when ABC and NBC projected Democrat Barack Obama would win Pennsylvania.

CBS, CNN and Fox News were more cautious to make the projection, which had great significance to the national race. Fox News and CBS called it around 8:30 p.m., with CNN the last to call it about 10 minutes later.

According to today’s AP story, a victory by Sen. Obama over Republican nominee John McCain in Pennsylvania (which has 21 electoral votes) “could be a death knell for McCain’s chances.”

However, ABC’s Charles Gibson added that the network was not going to declare a winner in the presidential race until one of the nominees had the required 270 electoral votes.

The networks also projected at around 8 p.m. that Sen. Obama had won New Hampshire, which Sen. McCain had hoped to win in a comeback. Sen. Obama was also ahead in Florida at that time. However, ABC's Gibson added “people project Florida too early at their own peril.”

He was referencing the 2000 race won by George Bush over Al Gore when the late Tim Russert used a chalk board on NBC to note that the key to who won the presidency was “Florida, Florida, Florida.”

At about 8:03 p.m., NBC offered a salute to Russert and his chalk board. Anchor Brian Williams said NBC realizes a lot of people miss Russert and his “point of view and enthusiasm” and are keeping his memory alive.

Tom Brokaw, who has been the moderator of “Meet the Press” since Russert's death, added he was going to “fulfill a promise to toast (Russert) at the end of the evening.”

“So stick around,” said Brokaw.

At 8:50 p.m., CBS anchor Katie Couric quoted a McCain aide as saying “at this point, we do need a miracle.”

“They do indeed,” said Bob Schieffer.

The early line of the night came from CNN analyst Alex Castellanos about the possible victory by Al Franken, the Democratic Senate candidate in Minnesota: “If Republicans can’t beat a lunatic like Al Franken we’re in bad shape,” said Castellanos.

At 9:15 p.m., Fox News was the first to project that Sen. Obama would win Ohio (with 20 electoral votes), another state that Sen. McCain’s campaign had said he needed to to win the presidency. PBS quickly followed with the same projection and NBC did so at 9:30 p.m.

But it wasn't until 11 p.m., when the polls in California and a few other West Coast states were closed and immediately projected as Obama wins that put him above the 270 electoral votes needed, that ABC's Gibson and all the other networks declared what had been obvious a few hours earlier: Sen. Obama was the president-elect.   

- Alan Pergament

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