Democrat Joe Biden said on Wednesday he was heading toward a victory over president Donald Trump in the US election after claiming the pivotal Midwestern states of Wisconsin and Michigan, while the Republican incumbent opened a multi-pronged attack on vote counts by pursuing lawsuits and a recount.
Wisconsin and Michigan were giving Biden, the former vice president who has spent five decades in public life, a critical boost in the race to the 270 electoral votes in the state-by-state Electoral College needed to win the White House.
Mr Trump won both states in his 2016 election victory. Losing them would narrow his path to securing another four years in office. "And now after a long night of counting, it's clear that we're winning enough states to reach [the] 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency," Mr Biden, appearing with his running mate Kamala Harris, said in his home state of Delaware.
“I’m not here to declare that we’ve won. But I am here to report that when the count is finished we believe will be the winners.”
While he had campaigned as a Democratic, “I will govern as an American president,” he said. It was time to put the harsh rhetoric aside and to “lower the temperature”, he added.
Mr Trump's campaign asked to intervene in a pending US Supreme Court case over whether Pennsylvania, another key state that was still working its way through hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots, should be permitted to accept late-arriving ballots sent by Election Day. His campaign also said it would request a recount in Wisconsin and added that it had filed lawsuits in Michigan and Pennsylvania seeking to halt vote counting, arguing that officials had failed to allow fair access to counting sites.
Mr Trump is trying to avoid becoming the first incumbent US president to lose a re-election bid since George H.W. Bush in 1992.
Mr Biden won Michigan by 67,000 votes, or 1.2 per cent, while he was ahead in Wisconsin by just over 20,000 ballots, or 0.6 per cent, according to figures from Edison Research, which projected Biden as the winner in Michigan.
Several news outlets projected Biden as the winner in Wisconsin, though Edison did not, citing the pending recount.
Wisconsin law allows a candidate to request a recount if the margin is below 1 per cent, which the Trump campaign immediately said it would do.
Excluding Wisconsin, Mr Biden leads Mr Trump 243 to 213 in Electoral College votes, which are largely based on a state’s population.
In duelling conference calls with reporters, officials from each campaign insisted their candidate would prevail. “If we count all legal ballots, we win,” Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien said, potentially setting the stage for post-election litigation over the counting of mail-in ballots.
Biden campaign manager Jennifer O’Malley Dillon told reporters the former vice president was on track to win the election, while senior legal adviser Bob Bauer said there were no grounds for Mr Trump to invalidate lawfully cast ballots.
“We’re going to defend this vote, the vote by which Joe Biden has been elected to the presidency,” said Mr Bauer, adding that the campaign’s legal team was prepared for any challenge.
Mr Trump continued to make baseless attacks on the vote-counting process on Twitter on Wednesday, hours after he appeared at the White House and declared victory in an election that was far from decided. Both Facebook and Twitter flagged multiple posts from the president for promoting misleading claims.
“We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election,” Mr Trump said before launching an extraordinary attack on the electoral process by a sitting president.
“This is a major fraud on our nation. We want the law to be used in a proper manner. So we’ll be going to the U.S. Supreme Court. We want all voting to stop.”
In an earlier tweet, he said: “Last night I was leading, often solidly, in many key States, in almost all instances Democrat run & controlled. Then, one by one, they started to magically disappear as surprise ballot dumps were counted. VERY STRANGE, and the “pollsters” got it completely & historically wrong!”
Mr Trump provided no evidence to back up his claim of fraud and did not explain how he would fight the results at the Supreme Court, which does not hear direct challenges. Voting concluded as scheduled on Tuesday night, but many states routinely take days to finish counting ballots.
In the nationwide popular vote, Mr Biden on Wednesday was comfortably ahead of Mr Trump, with 3 million more votes.
Mr Trump won the 2016 election over Democrat Hillary Clinton after winning crucial battleground states even though she drew about 3 million more votes nationwide.
Mr Biden's hopes of a decisive early victory were dashed on Tuesday evening when Trump won the battlegrounds of Florida, Ohio and Texas.
Mr Biden led in the battleground states of Arizona, a state with a high Latino population, which would make him only the second Democratic presidential candidate to win the state in 72 years.
Mr Trump won the state in 2016. The election will now come down in large part to the trio of “blue wall” states that unexpectedly sent Mr Trump to the White House in 2016 - Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
In Pennsylvania, where Mr Trump led more by than half a million votes on Wednesday, officials said they were slowly working their way through millions of mail-in ballots, which were seen as likely to benefit Mr Biden.
Across the state, vote counting was proceeding more slowly in Democratic-leaning counties. There were about twice as many ballots left to count in counties that backed Hillary Clinton in 2016 than in the counties won that year by Mr Trump.
“The delay that we’re seeing is a sign that the system is working,” Democratic Governor Tom Wolf said at a news conference. Officials in Michigan said on Wednesday they expected the state to complete its count by day’s end.
Among other undecided states, Nevada does not expect to update its vote count until Thursday, state officials said. Two Southern states, Georgia and North Carolina, also remain in play. Mr Trump held leads in both.
Texas and Florida
Texas’s 38-vote electoral college prize will remain in Republican hands despite Democratic hopes of winning the state for the first time since 1976.
A wave of support from Hispanic voters also gave Mr Trump a decisive victory in Florida on Tuesday night, helping him secure the state that has long been seen as a bellwether battleground.
Mr Trump, who also won the state four years ago, outperformed his 2016 margins with Florida’s Hispanics, who make up 19 per cent of the state’s voters. A lot of the swing came in Miami-Dade, the county that contains Florida’s largest Cuban and Venezuelan communities.
The Biden campaign had sent former president Barack Obama to Miami on the eve of the election to try to rally supporters
– Additional reporting Reuters