President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney left voters on Election Day with a stark choice between their fundamentally different visions for the country's future, clearly laid out during an aggressive and closely fought battle for the White House.
Both sides cast the Election Day decision 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 economic problems.
After months of campaigning and billions of dollars spent in the battle for leadership of the world's most powerful country, Obama and Romney were in a virtual nationwide tie ahead of Tuesday's election, an overt symptom of the vast partisan divide separating Americans in the early years of the 21st century.
Obama appeared to have a slight edge, however, in some of the key swing states such as Ohio that do not vote reliably Democratic or Republican. That gives him an easier path to reach the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.
"I feel optimistic but only cautiously optimistic," Obama said on "The Steve Harvey Morning Show." ''Because until people actually show up at the polls and cast their ballot, the rest of this stuff is all just speculation."
Romney reached out on Ohio drive-time radio, where he told voters to remember as they go to the polls that the country is hurting financially under Obama's policies. "If it comes down to economics and jobs, this is an election I should win," Romney told Cleveland station WTAM.
He and his wife Ann cast their votes near their Massachusetts home Tuesday morning. The Republican challenger still has Election Day rallies in Ohio and neighboring Pennsylvania, traditionally Democratic territory where Romney has made a surprise and last-minute push — perhaps against all odds — to compensate for Obama's expected victory in Ohio.
Under the U.S. system, the winner of the presidential election is not determined by the nationwide popular vote but in state-by-state contests. The candidate who wins a state — with Maine and Nebraska the exceptions — is awarded all of that state's electoral votes, which are apportioned based on representation in Congress.
It wasn't just the presidency at stake Tuesday: All 435 seats in the House of Representatives, a third of the 100 Senate seats, and 11 governorships were on the line, along with state ballot proposals on topics ranging from gay marriage to legalizing marijuana. Democrats were expected to maintain their majority in the Senate, with Republicans doing likewise in the House, raising the prospect of continued partisan wrangling no matter who might be president.
Obama's final campaign rally, Monday night in Des Moines, Iowa, was filled with nostalgia as he returned to the state which launched him on the road to the White House in 2008 with a victory in its lead-off caucuses over Hillary Rodham Clinton, now his secretary of state. 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.
There has been little of the euphoria that propelled Obama to the White House four years ago, America's first black president promising hope and renovation to a nation weighed down by war and a near financial meltdown.
The economy has proven a huge drag on Obama's candidacy as he fought to turn it around after the deepest recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s, a downturn that was well under way when he replaced George W. Bush in the White House on Jan. 20, 2009.
No U.S. president since Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s has run for re-election with a national jobless rate as high as it is now — 7.9 percent in October.
Unable to bridge America's fierce partisan divide, especially on taxes and debt, Obama was thwarted in his efforts to pass aggressive plans for jobs creation and deficit reduction.
He ended the war in Iraq and the U.S. intelligence and military tracked down and killed Osama bin Laden, but a new host of Middle East crises — especially the war in Syria and the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya — shadowed the last months of the campaign.
Obama, making his last run for office at the still-young age of 51, urged voters in Iowa to help him finish what they started four years ago. The president credits his auto-industry bailout, stimulus plan and other policies for ending the recession. He points to recent positive economic reports and a slow but steady drop in the unemployment rate.
"I've come back to Iowa one more time to ask for your vote," Obama told 20,000 supporters at the outdoor rally. "This is where our movement for change began."
Romney, 65, assailed Obama's economic policies amid the recession, and promised to bring change that he asserted Obama had only talked about.
"Talk is cheap, but a record is real," Romney said before a crowd of about 10,000 in New Hampshire on Monday.
If elected, Romney would be the first Mormon U.S. president. At times, the former Massachusetts governor has struggled to connect with the protestant evangelicals who are a core constituency of the Republican Party, especially because of his shifting positions on some social issues such as abortion.
Romney, the ultra-wealthy founder of a private equity firm, worked doggedly to keep the race instead focused on the economy, and polls suggest that he succeeded in persuading many Americans he has the right credentials to steer America to better times. His selection of the young Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate put Romney squarely on the side of the conservative Tea Party movement that has been a driving force of the Republican Party in recent years.
Obama and Romney have spent months highlighting their sharp divisions over the role of government in Americans' lives, in bringing down the stubbornly high unemployment rate, reducing the $1 trillion-plus federal budget deficit and reducing a national debt that has crept above $16 trillion.
Obama insists there is no way reduce the staggering debt and safeguard crucial social programs without asking the wealthy to pay their "fair share" in taxes. Romney, who claims his successful business background gives him the expertise to manage the economy, favors lowering taxes and easing regulations on businesses, saying this would spur job growth.
The final Washington Post-ABC News tracking poll, released Monday, showed Obama with support from 50 percent of likely voters to 47 percent for Romney. The poll had a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points.
More than 30 million absentee or early ballots have already been cast, including in excess of 3 million in Florida.
In surveys of the battleground states, Obama held small advantages in Nevada, Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin — enough to deliver a second term if they held up, but not so significant that they could withstand an Election Day surge by Romney supporters. Romney appears to be performing slightly better than Obama or has pulled even in North Carolina, Virginia and Florida.
The biggest focus has been on Ohio, an industrial state that has gone with the winner of the last 12 presidential elections, which both candidates visited Monday. No Republican has ever won the White House without carrying Ohio.
Both campaigns say the winner will be determined by which campaign is better at getting its supporters to the polls. The president needs the overwhelming support of blacks and Hispanics to counter Romney's big lead among white males.
"I encourage you to stand in line as long as you have to," Vice President Joe Biden told television cameras at a polling place in his home state of Delaware, where he and his wife were among the first voters.
Election Day turnout was heavy in several storm-ravaged areas in New York and New Jersey, with many voters expressing relief and even elation at being able to vote at all, considering the devastation from Superstorm Sandy.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now