Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (AP) - Republican Rick Scott clung to a razor-thin lead early Wednesday over Democrat Alex Sink, saying he was "absolutely confident" he'd prevail. Sink vowed not to give up until "all the people of Florida have their voices heard."
With 99 percent of the expected vote from Tuesday's election counted, Scott had 49 percent while Sink had 48 percent.
"I am absolutely confident I will be the next great governor of the State of Florida," Scott told a crowd of hundreds of giddy but exhausted voters in Fort Lauderdale just after 2 a.m. "We look forward to finishing the count. We know we're going to win."
Still, the race remained too close to call, with just tens of thousands of votes separating the candidates out of more than 5 million cast. Sink's party ended with the Democrat telling supporters "We are coming down to the wire in what looks to be a dead-even race."
Sink was pinning her hopes on still-uncounted votes in Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade and Hillsborough counties. It remained unclear how many ballots were outstanding. To trigger an automatic machine recount, Sink would need to cut Scott's lead to 0.5 percent or less.
Voters on both sides of the aisle were hopeful their pick would prevail after a fiercely contentious, incredibly expensive race.
Scott, 57, is a multimillionaire who unexpectedly jumped into the Republican primary race in April. With an antiestablishment message and tea party backing, the political newcomer proceeded to spend about $73 million of his family's money beating Attorney General Bill McCollum for the GOP nomination and then taking on Sink.
After the August primary, he quickly picked up the backing of state GOP leaders, many of whom had worked to defeat him, and began to paint Sink as a "Tallahassee insider" who marches in lockstep with President Barack Obama.
Scott's albatross in the campaign has been his leadership of Columbia/HCA, a hospital conglomerate that ended up paying $1.7 billion in fines to settle federal charges of Medicaid and Medicare fraud.
Scott, who founded the company and built it into the largest for-profit hospital chain in the world, said he didn't know anything about criminal activity and was never charged, but now assumes responsibility for what happened on his watch. He wanted to fight the charges, but was forced out by his board in 1997.
Sink, 62, worked for 26 years in the banking business, eventually becoming one of the state's most prominent businesswomen. As Florida president of NationsBank -- which later became Bank of America -- she oversaw 9,000 employees, 800 branch banks throughout the state and $40 billion in customer deposits.
After parting ways with the bank in 2000, Sink stepped up to take a high-profile role in the failed gubernatorial campaign of her husband when he opposed Jeb Bush in 2002.
Then, positioning herself as an outsider, she won the job of Florida's chief financial officer in 2006 in her first ever election. The CFO is the Cabinet officer who not only pays the state's bills but has such other varied duties as regulating funeral homes, overseeing the fire marshal's office and investigating insurance fraud.
The winner will replace Charlie Crist on Jan. 4. He ran for the U.S. Senate instead of seeking a second term. Crist lost the race to Marco Rubio Tuesday.
Stacy reported from Tampa, Fla.