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ONE LAST FLING FOR TOM BROKAW

The one network anchor who was embarrassed on Election Night was NBC's Tom Brokaw. And it was a "good" embarrassment that had nothing to do with any mistaken projection like the ones made in the 2000 election.

Brokaw seemed uncomfortable as former New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani and Arizona Sen. John McCain ended their interviews Tuesday by congratulating him for anchoring his final presidential campaign in his distinguished career.

Brokaw didn't want to become part of the story but there was no way to avoid it. NBC analyst Tim Russert also couldn't resist interjecting Brokaw into his analysis of the battle between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry.

"We thought 2000 was a once-in-a-lifetime election," said Russert at about 9 p.m. "You are two for two, Brokaw."

Brokaw seemed to enjoy his swan song, enthusiastically saying at 10:30 p.m. "You want reality TV. This is reality TV. Someone will be (elected). We simply can't say (who)."

By 12:45 this morning, Fox News Channel told viewers who it was very likely to be. It was the first to project that President Bush won Ohio, which would have given him 266 electoral votes, three short of a tie that would practically assure his re-election.

When Brokaw announced that "this race is all but over" and NBC had given Ohio to the President, no one seemed more relieved than Fox News anchor Brit Hume. He noted that one more network had called Ohio, ending Fox's "exclusive for all of 20 anxious minutes."

By 7 this morning, Fox and NBC were still the only networks to go that far, with CNN and ABC cautiously giving the President 254 electoral votes without Ohio and everyone watching to see if Sen. Kerry would concede.

Having learned the lessons of 2000, the networks generally played a super cautious game and seemed unconcerned if a competitor called a race before they did.

"We will be as cautious as we can be," said ABC anchor Peter Jennings.

Bob Woodward put it another way on CNN: "You all have taken a Valium cooler, and I think there is good reason to be careful."

The networks even delayed giving Florida to President Bush when he had more than a 326,000 vote lead with only 3 percent of the vote uncounted.

CBS' Dan Rather had his usual unique way of explaining the closeness of the presidential race.

"This presidential election is hotter than the devil's anvil," Rather said at about 8 p.m.

Actually, the fortunes of President Bush and Sen. Kerry went hot and cold, with exit polls leading some analysts to initially believe the senator was ahead, only to switch to the President later. The exit polls proved to be as inaccurate a predictor as the claim that a Washington Redskins home loss in the last game before the election foreshadowed a Presidential defeat.

ABC and CBS were the first networks to give Florida to the President, a good 30 minutes before CNN and NBC did. After CNN made its call, anchor Judy Woodruff said: "You can't say we weren't cautious. We waited until 97 percent of the precincts were counted."

Locally, the congressional race between Democrat Brian Higgins and Republican Nancy Naples also was a nail-biter. WIVB-TV's astute analyst, Joe Crangle, wasn't quite as cautious as network analysts, suggesting shortly before 10 p.m. that Higgins would win because Naples didn't do well enough in Democratic areas.

"I'm not ready to say definitely yet, but it looks like Brian Higgins is going to win this race," said Crangle. Naples vowed she would be victorious after a legal fight. If she's right, Crangle might be more embarrassed than Brokaw was Tuesday night.

Channel 2 reporter Stefan Mychajliw apparently is beyond embarrassment. He tried three or four different ways to ask State Sen. Byron Brown after his landslide victory if he was ready to run for mayor of Buffalo. Brown skillfully skirted the issue each time, but Mychajliw impressed anchor Maryalice Demler. She said his persistence would score points with the boss. And undoubtedly land in one of Channel 2's embarrassing "tough question" promos.

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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