It’s a nail-biter as Election Day dawns

IMAGE: Obama, Romney
  By MSN News with wire reports
President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney will end their campaigns Tuesday after a grinding presidential race that is coming down to a razor-thin finish.

 

WASHINGTON — Two fierce competitors who’ve given their all, President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney now yield center stage to voters for an Election Day choice that will frame the contours of government and the nation for years to come.

After a long and bitter White House campaign, Americans began casting their votes on Tuesday with polls showing Obama and Romney neck-and-neck in an election that will be decided in a handful of states.

Polling stations opened across the eastern United States and parts of the Midwest as Election Day dawned. At least 120 million people were expected to render judgment on whether to give Obama a second term or replace him with Romney.

Their decision will set the country’s course for four years on spending, taxes, healthcare and foreign policy challenges like the rise of China and Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

National opinion polls show Obama and Romney in a virtual dead heat, although the Democratic incumbent has a slight advantage in several vital swing states – most notably Ohio – that could give him the 270 electoral votes he needs to win.

Romney, the multimillionaire former head of a private equity fund, would be the first Mormon president and one of the wealthiest Americans to occupy the White House. Obama, the first black president, is vying to be the first Democrat to win a second term since Bill Clinton in 1996.

Fueled by record spending on negative ads, the battle between the two men was focused primarily on the lagging economic recovery and persistent high unemployment, but at times it turned personal.

As Americans headed to voting booths and long lines formed in some places, campaign teams for both candidates worked the phones feverishly to mobilize supporters to cast their ballots.

After a grinding presidential campaign that packed suspense to the finish, Americans head into polling places in sleepy hollows, bustling cities and superstorm-ravaged beach towns deeply divided. All sides are awaiting, in particular, a verdict from the nine battleground states whose votes will determine which man can piece together the 270 electoral votes needed for victory.

Obama has more options for getting there. So Romney decided to make a late dash to Cleveland and Pittsburgh on Tuesday while running mate Paul Ryan threw in stops in Cleveland and Richmond, Va. Obama opted to make a dozen radio and satellite TV interviews from his hometown of Chicago to keep his closing arguments fresh in voters’ minds.

Both sides cast the Election Day choice as one with far-reaching repercussions for a nation still recovering from the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression and at odds over how big a role government should play in solving the country’s problems.

“It’s a choice between two different visions for America,” Obama declared in Madison, Wis., asking voters to let him complete work on the economic turnaround that began in his first term. “It’s a choice between returning to the top-down policies that crashed our economy, or a future that’s built on providing opportunity to everybody and growing a strong middle class.”

Romney argued that Obama had his chance and blew it.

“The president thinks more government is the answer,” he said in Sanford, Fla. “No, Mr. President, more jobs, that’s the answer for America.”

With both sides keeping up the onslaught of political ads in battleground states right into Election Day, on one thing, at least, there was broad agreement: “I am ready for it to be over,” said nurse Jennifer Walker in Columbus, Ohio.

It wasn’t just the presidency at stake Tuesday: Every House seat, a third of the Senate and 11 governorships were on the line, along with state ballot proposals on topics ranging from gay marriage and casino gambling to repealing the death penalty and legalizing marijuana. Democrats were defending their majority in the Senate, and Republicans doing likewise in the House, raising the prospect of continued partisan wrangling in the years ahead no matter who might be president.

If past elections are any guide, a small but significant percentage of voters won’t decide which presidential candidate they’re voting for until Tuesday. Four percent of voters reported making up their minds on Election Day in 2008, and the figure was 5 percent four years earlier, according to exit polls.

By contrast, Election Day came early for more than a third of Americans, who chose to cast ballots days or even weeks in advance.

An estimated 46 million ballots, or 35 percent of the 133 million expected to be cast, were projected to be early ballots, according to Michael McDonald, an early voting expert at George Mason University who tallies voting statistics for the United States Elections Project. None of those ballots were being counted until Tuesday.

The two candidates and their running mates, propelled by adrenalin, throat lozenges and a determination to look back with no regrets, stormed through eight battleground states and logged more than 6,000 flight miles Monday on their final full day of campaigning, a political marathon featuring urgency, humor and celebrity.

Obama’s final campaign rally, Monday night in Des Moines, Iowa, was filled with nostalgia. A single tear streamed down Obama’s face during his remarks, though it was hard to tell whether it was from emotion or the bitter cold.

Team Obama’s closing lineup included Bruce Springsteen, rapper Jay-Z, singers Mariah Carey, Ricky Martin and John Mellencamp, the NBA’s Derek Fisher and actors Samuel L. Jackson and Chris Rock. Springsteen, who hitched a ride aboard Air Force One for part of the day, even composed an anthem for the president, rhyming “Obama” with “pajamas.”

“Not the best I’ve ever written,” the rocker confessed.

Obama, making his last run for office at the still-young age of 51, was tickled to have Springsteen along as his traveling campaign, telling the crowd in Madison, “I get to fly around with him on the last day that I will ever campaign — so that’s not a bad way to end things.”

Team Romney’s closing events offered a slimmer celebrity quotient, including Kid Rock and country rock performers The Marshall Tucker Band. But the GOP nominee didn’t seem to mind.

After a warm welcome at a rally in Fairfax, Va., Romney, 65, told cheering supporters: “I’m looking around to see if we have the Beatles here or something to have brought you. But it looks like you came just for the campaign and I appreciate it.”

Wife Ann Romney addressed the crowd in suburban Washington, too.

“Are we going to be neighbors soon?” she asked hopefully.

Ryan alone logged more than 2,500 miles Monday as he hopped from Nevada to Colorado to Iowa to Ohio to Wisconsin.

At a rally in Reno, Nev., he told voters: “This feels like deja vu, doesn’t it? You’ve seen a few of us around, haven’t you?” He’d been at a rally just around the corner on Thursday.

Vice President Joe Biden crisscrossed Virginia, and fondly recalled his debate with Ryan during a stop in Richmond.

“You all learned what ‘malarkey’ means, didn’t you?” he said. “Well, I heard a lot of malarkey.”

Just in case everyone wasn’t paying attention, Obama and Romney made a play for those tuned in to “Monday Night Football,” each making satellite appearances on ESPN that aired during halftime of the Philadelphia Eagles-New Orleans Saints game.

The forecast for Election Day promised dry weather for much of the country, with rain expected in two battlegrounds, Florida and Wisconsin. But the closing days of the campaign played out against ongoing recovery efforts after superstorm Sandy. Election officials in New York and New Jersey were scrambling to marshal generators, move voting locations, shuttle storm victims to polling places and take other steps to ensure everyone who wanted to vote could do so.

After voting near his Boston-area home, Romney visits Cleveland and Pittsburgh on Tuesday, betting an eleventh-hour appeal to working-class voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania will help him defeat President Barack Obama.

His running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, is following a similar strategy, using his travel time after voting in his Wisconsin hometown to join Romney in Cleveland and then visit Richmond, Va. The campaign isn’t ruling out additional swing-state appearances as well. Tuesday night, he’ll await returns with Romney in Boston.

Obama, who voted 12 days early, was sure to observe his Election Day ritual of playing pickup basketball with friends and close advisers. The one time he skipped the tradition, he lost the New Hampshire primary in 2008.

“We won’t make that mistake again,” said senior adviser Robert Gibbs.

The election played out with intensity in the small subset of battleground states: Colorado, Iowa, Florida, New Hampshire, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin. Romney’s late move to add Pennsylvania to the mix was an effort to expand his options, and Republicans poured millions into previously empty airwaves there.

In the campaign’s final hours, voters around the country echoed the closing arguments of the two presidential candidates.

Obama supporter Gary Muratore, of Upper Arlington, Ohio, said Obama had rescued the country “from the brink of economic disaster.”

“And while I don’t think the pace of the recovery has been as fast as anyone would like, I think that the only way forward is to keep on the path that he started us down,” said Muratore, 62, who attended an Obama rally in Columbus on Monday.

Romney backer Anastasia Loupakos, voting in Iowa City on Monday, said Romney was “the one to turn our economy around.”

“I can’t stand the thought of Barack as president for four more years,” she said. “I couldn’t stand him spending all of our money. I feel like he’s destroying more jobs than he’s creating.”

After a long campaign that cost record sums and spawned far more political ads than ever before, Americans were showing fatigue at the end. A Pew Research Center poll released Monday showed 47 percent of Americans followed news about the election closely last week, down from 52 percent a week earlier.

 

Polls will begin to close in Indiana and Kentucky at 6 p.m. EST (1900 p.m EDT) on Tuesday, with voting ending across the country over the next six hours.

The first results, by tradition, were tallied in Dixville Notch and Hart’s Location, New Hampshire, shortly after midnight (0100 a.m EDT). Obama and Romney each received five votes in Dixville Notch. In Hart’s Location, Obama got 23 votes to nine votes for Romney and two votes for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson.

The close presidential race raises the prospect of a disputed outcome similar to the 2000 election, which was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. Both campaigns have assembled legal teams to deal with possible voting problems, challenges or recounts.

The balance of power in the U.S. Congress will also be at stake in Senate and House of Representatives races that could impact the outcome of “fiscal cliff” negotiations on spending cuts and tax increases, which kick in at the end of the year unless a deal is reached.

Obama’s Democrats are now expected to narrowly hold their Senate majority, while Romney’s Republicans are favored to retain House control.

Amid uncertainty over the U.S. election outcome, world stock markets and the dollar held steady on Tuesday as investors waited for the result.

Despite the weak economy, Obama appeared in September to be cruising to a relatively easy win after a strong party convention and a series of stumbles by Romney, including a secretly recorded video showing the Republican writing off 47 percent of the electorate as government-dependent victims.

But Romney rebounded in the first debate on October 3 in Denver, where his sure-footed criticism of the president and Obama’s listless response started a slow rise for Romney in polls. Obama seemed to regain his footing in recent days at the head of federal relief efforts for victims of superstorm Sandy.

The presidential contest is now likely to be determined by voter turnout – specifically, what combination of Republicans, Democrats, white, minority, young, old and independent voters shows up at polling stations.

Weather could be a factor. Much of the nation was dry and mild, though rain was forecast later on Tuesday in the Southeast, including Florida, an important swing state.

Obama and Romney raced through seven battleground states on Monday to hammer home their final themes, urge supporters to get to the polls and woo the last remaining undecided voters.

‘WE KNOW WHAT CHANGE LOOKS LIKE’

Obama focused on Wisconsin, Ohio and Iowa, the three Midwestern swing states that, barring surprises elsewhere, would insure that he reaches the 270 electoral votes needed to win. Romney visited the must-win states of Florida, Virginia and Ohio before finishing in New Hampshire, where he launched his presidential run in June 2011.

After two days of nearly round-the-clock travel, Obama wrapped up his final campaign tour in Des Moines, Iowa, with a speech that hearkened back to his 2008 campaign.

“I’ve come back to Iowa one more time to ask for your vote. I came back to ask you to help us finish what we’ve started, because this is where our movement for change began,” he told a crowd of some 20,000 people.

Obama’s voice broke and he wiped away tears from his eyes as he reflected on those who had helped his campaign.

Romney’s final day included stops in Florida, Virginia, Ohio and New Hampshire. The former governor of Massachusetts ended Monday at a raucous “Final Victory” rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, the city where he launched his campaign last year.

“We’re one day away from a fresh start. We’re one day away from a new beginning,” the candidate, sounding hoarse at his fifth rally of the day, told the crowd of 12,000 at a sports arena in the center of the city.

Obama ridiculed Romney’s claims to be the candidate of change and said the challenger would be a rubber stamp for a conservative Tea Party agenda.

“We know what change looks like, and what he’s selling ain’t it,” he said in Columbus, Ohio.

Romney argued he was the candidate who could break the partisan gridlock in Washington, and said four more years of Obama could mean another economic recession.

“His plan for the next four years is to take all the ideas from the first term – the stimulus, the borrowing, Obamacare, all the rest – and do them over again,” he said in Lynchburg, Virginia.

The common denominator for both candidates was Ohio, the most critical of the battlegrounds, particularly for Romney. Without the state’s 18 electoral votes, the path to victory becomes very narrow for the Republican.

Polls have shown Obama with a small but steady lead in the state for months, sparked in part by his support for a federal bailout of the auto industry, which accounts for one of every eight jobs in Ohio, and by a strong state economy with an unemployment rate lower than the 7.9 percent national rate.

That undercut the central argument of Romney’s campaign – that his business experience made him uniquely qualified to create jobs and lead an economic recovery.

Obama fought back through the summer with ads criticizing Romney’s experience at the equity fund Bain Capital and portraying him as out of touch with ordinary Americans.

That was part of a barrage of advertising in the most heavily contested battleground states from both candidates and their party allies, who raised a combined $2 billion.

The rise of “Super PACs,” unaffiliated outside groups that can spend unlimited sums on behalf of candidates, also helped fuel the record spending on political ads that swamped swing-state voters.

Romney planned to vote at home in Massachusetts in the morning before a final trip to Ohio and Pennsylvania, a Democratic-leaning state that he has tried to put in play in recent weeks.

Obama, who voted in October by taking advantage of early voting procedures, will spend the day at his home in Chicago. Vice President Joe Biden stood patiently in a long line, chatting and joking with voters, as he cast his ballot in his home state of Delaware.