• REUTERS, AFP-JIJI, Bloomberg

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Democrat Joe Biden said he was going to win the U.S. presidency as his lead grew over President Donald Trump in battleground states, although television networks held off from declaring him the victor as officials continued to count votes.

"The numbers tell us … it's a clear and convincing story: We're going to win this race," Biden said late on Friday, adding that he and his running mate Kamala Harris were already meeting with experts as they prepare for the White House.

Americans have been waiting longer than in any presidential election since 2000 to learn the winner, as officials methodically count a record number of mail-in ballots in Tuesday's contest. The COVID-19 pandemic prompted many to avoid large groups of voters on Election Day.

With thousands of votes still to count, it was not clear when the bitter contest would conclude.

Biden backers danced in Philadelphia's streets, while armed Trump supporters in Phoenix and Detroit said the election was being stolen, despite no evidence of irregularities. Under the banner of "Stop the Steal," Trump supporters planned dozens of rallies for Saturday.

Biden's speech in his home state of Delaware was originally planned as a victory celebration, but he changed his approach in the absence of an official call from television networks and other election forecasters.

Still, it amounted to a blunt challenge to Trump. The Republican incumbent kept out of view in the White House on Friday as Biden held on to leads in the four states that will decide the outcome: Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona and Nevada.

Leading Trump by 4.1 million votes nationwide out of a record 147 million cast, Biden said Americans had given him a mandate to tackle the pandemic, the struggling economy, climate change and systemic racism.

"They made it clear they want the country to come together, not continue to pull apart," Biden said.

He said he hoped to address Americans again on Saturday.

Trump has remained defiant, vowing to press unfounded claims of fraud as his Republicans sought to raise $60 million to fund lawsuits challenging the results. But some in his camp described the legal effort as disorganized, and so far they have not found success in the courts.

As the counting entered its fifth day, Former Vice President Biden had a 253-to-214 lead in the state-by-state Electoral College vote that determines the winner, according to Edison Research. Democrats grew increasingly frustrated that networks had not yet called a winner.

John Lapinski, who manages race calls for NBC News, made clear that his network was taking a cautious approach to declaring who will win the White House.

"This particular year, there are just so many curveballs that have been thrown our way that we really are taking a little bit more time to make sure that we understand exactly what we’re seeing and analyzing it,” he said.

Securing Pennsylvania's 20 electoral votes would put Biden over the 270 he needs to win the presidency after a political career stretching back nearly five decades.

Biden would also win if he prevails in two of the three other key states. Like Pennsylvania, all three were still processing ballots on Friday.

As officials count a deluge of mail-in ballots, Biden has held on to narrow leads in Nevada and Arizona and earlier on Friday overtook Trump in Pennsylvania and Georgia.

In Arizona, Biden led by 29,861 votes with 97% of the tally completed. In Nevada, he led by 22,657 votes with 93% of the count complete.

In Georgia, he led by a mere 4,289 votes with the count 99% complete, while in Pennsylvania he led by 27,130 votes with 96% of the vote complete.

Biden said Trump's demands to stop the count would not work.

"Your vote will be counted. I don't care how hard people try to stop it. I will not let it happen," Biden said.

"We have to remain calm, patient. Let the process work out as we count all the votes. Democracy works. Your vote will be counted.”

Trump showed no sign he was ready to concede, as his campaign pursued a series of lawsuits that legal experts said were unlikely to alter the election outcome.

"Joe Biden should not wrongfully claim the office of the President. I could make that claim also. Legal proceedings are just now beginning!" he wrote on Twitter.

Republicans aimed to raise at least $60 million for legal costs, although the fine print on solicitations indicates that more than half the money raised would go to paying down the campaign's debts.

A Trump adviser described the campaign's litigation strategy as chaotic and disorganized. Another Republican official said it was doubtful the lawsuits would yield a Trump victory. "This race is over, and the only person who doesn't see it is Donald Trump," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

More than 127,000 new infections were reported in the U.S. on Friday, the third straight day of record cases, as votes from the bitterly fought presidential election were still being counted.

Biden promised he would not waste any time in addressing the pandemic if he is victorious.

"I want everyone, everyone to know on day one we're going to put our plan to control this virus into action," he said.

Trump, who survived a bout of COVID-19 in October, has been widely criticized over his handling of the crisis. Unlike Biden, he held massive campaign rallies ahead of the Nov. 3 vote, and had insisted that the U.S. was "rounding the turn" on the virus despite the surges.

In another blow to the White House's image when it comes to its coronavirus response, Trump's chief of staff Mark Meadows has been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to a source familiar with the situation.

Meadows, who frequently appears at public events without a mask, is the latest person within Trump's circle to contract the virus, which has killed more than 236,000 Americans.

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