WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney dueled for the White House on Tuesday, the tight-to-the-finish climax of an election persistently shadowed by a weak national economy and high unemployment that crimped middle class dreams for millions.
Voters also chose a new Congress to serve alongside the man who will be inaugurated president next January, Democrats defending their majority in the Senate, and Republicans in the House. Eleven states picked governors, and ballot measures ranging from gay marriage to gambling dotted ballots.
The long campaign's cost soared into the billions, much of it spent on negative ads, some harshly so.
In the presidential race, an estimated one million commercials aired in nine battleground states where the rival camps agreed the election was most likely to be settled — Ohio, New Hampshire, Virginia, Florida, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Iowa, Colorado and Nevada. Those states accounted for 110 of the 270 electoral votes needed for victory, and they drew repeated appearances by the 51-year-old president and Romney, 65.
There was one last startling sight on Election Day, which turned out to be the last campaign day, as well. In Ohio, crucial to the end, Romney waited on his plane at the Cleveland airport for running mate Paul Ryan to arrive for a joint campaign appearance as Vice President Joe Biden's plane took off following his own event. Romney told Richmond, Va., radio station WRVA, "I can't imagine an election being won or lost by, let's say, a few hundred votes and you spent your day sitting around."
Obama made get-out-the-vote calls from a campaign office near his home in Chicago and found time for his traditional Election Day basketball game with friends. Addressing his rival, he said, "I also want to say to Gov. Romney, 'Congratulations on a spirited campaign.' I know his supporters are just as engaged, just as enthusiastic and working just as hard today." Romney, in turn, congratulated the president for running a "strong campaign."
Other than the battlegrounds, big states were virtually ignored in the final months of the campaign. Romney wrote off New York, Illinois and California, while Obama made no attempt to carry Texas, much of the South or the Rocky Mountain region other than Colorado.
There were 33 Senate seats on the ballot, 23 of them defended by Democrats and the rest by Republicans.
The GOP needed a gain of three for a majority if Romney won, and four if Obama was re-elected. Neither Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada nor GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky was on the ballot, but each had high stakes in the outcome.
All 435 House seats were on the ballot, including five where one lawmaker ran against another as a result of once-a-decade redistricting to take population shifts into account. Democrats needed to pick up 25 seats to gain the majority they lost two years ago.
Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, raised millions to finance get-out-the-vote operations in states without a robust presidential campaign. His goal was to minimize any losses, or possibly even gain ground, no matter Romney's fate. House Democratic leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California campaigned aggressively, as well, and faced an uncertain political future if her party failed to win control.
In gubernatorial races, Republicans hoped to gain seats after Democratic retirements in New Hampshire, Washington, Montana and especially North Carolina.
Obama awaited the results in Chicago, where he ended his campaign with a huge election eve rally on Monday.
Romney was in Massachusetts after his Election Day dash to Ohio and Pennsylvania.
In a campaign that traversed contested Republican primaries last winter and spring, a pair of political conventions this summer and three presidential debates, Obama, Romney, Biden and Ryan spoke at hundreds of rallies, were serenaded by Bruce Springstein and Meat Loaf and washed down hamburgers, pizza, barbecue and burrito bowls.
Obama was elected the first black president in 2008, and four years later, Romney became the first Mormon to appear on a general election ballot. Yet one man's race and the other's religion were never major factors in this year's campaign for the White House, a race dominated from the outset by the economy.
Over and over, Obama said that during his term the nation has begun to recover from the worst recession since the Great Depression. While he conceded progress has been slow, he accused Romney of offering recycled Republican policies that have helped the wealthy and harmed the middle class in the past and would do so again.
Romney countered that a second Obama term could mean a repeat recession in a country where economic growth has been weak and unemployment is worse now than when the president was inaugurated. A wealthy former businessman, he claimed the knowledge and the skills to put in place policies that would make the economy healthy again.
In a race where the two men disagreed often, one of the principal fault lines was over taxes. Obama campaigned for the renewal of income tax cuts set to expire on Dec. 31 at all income levels except above $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for couples.
Romney said no one's taxes should go up in uncertain economic times. In addition, he proposed a 20 percent cut across the board in income tax rates but said he would end or curtail a variety of tax breaks to make sure federal deficits didn't rise.
The differences over taxes, the economy, Medicare, abortion and more were expressed in intensely negative advertising.
Obama launched first, shortly after Romney dispatched his Republican foes in his quest for the party nomination.
One memorable commercial showed Romney singing an off-key rendition of "America The Beautiful." Pictures and signs scrolled by saying that his companies had shipped jobs to Mexico and China, that Massachusetts state jobs had gone to India while he was governor and that he has personal investments in Switzerland, Bermuda and the Cayman Islands.
Romney spent less on advertising than Obama. A collection of outside groups made up the difference, some of them operating under rules that allowed donors to remain anonymous. Most of the ads were of the attack variety. But the Republican National Committee relied on one that had a far softer touch, and seemed aimed at voters who had been drawn to the excitement caused by Obama's first campaign. It referred to a growing national debt and unemployment, then said, "He tried. You tried. It's OK to make a change."
More than 30 million voters cast early ballots in nearly three dozen states, a reflection of the growing appeal of a relatively new phenomenon.
Associated Press writers Julie Pace in Chicago Philip Elliott in Cleveland contributed to this report.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.
COLUMBUS, Ohio — The White House the prize, President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney raced through a final full day of campaigning on Monday through Ohio and other battleground states holding the keys to victory in a tight race. Both promised brighter days ahead for a nation still struggling with a sluggish economy and high joblessness.
"Our work is not done yet," Obama told a cheering crowd of nearly 20,000 in chilly Madison, Wis., imploring his audience to give him another four years.
Romney projected optimism as he neared the end of his six-year quest for the presidency. "If you believe we can do better. If you believe America should be on a better course. If you're tired of being tired ... then I ask you to vote for real change," he said in a Virginia suburb of the nation's capital. With many of the late polls in key states tilting slightly against him, he decided to campaign on Election Day in Ohio and Pennsylvania, where he and Republicans made a big, late push.
The presidency aside, there are 33 Senate seats on the ballot Tuesday, and according to one Republican official, a growing sense of resignation among his party's rank and file that Democrats will hold their majority.
The situation was reversed in the House, where Democrats made no claims they were on the verge of victory in pursuit of the 25 seats they need to gain control.
National opinion polls in the presidential race made the popular vote a virtual tie.
In state-by-state surveys, it appeared Obama held small advantages in Nevada, Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin — enough to deliver a second term if they endured, but not so significant that they could withstand an Election Day surge by Romney supporters. Both men appealed to an ever smaller universe of undecided voters.
More than 30 million absentee or early ballots have been cast, including in excess of 3 million in Florida. The state also had a legal controversy, in the form of a Democratic lawsuit seeking an extension of time for pre-Election Day voting.
There were other concerns, logistical rather than legal.
Officials in one part of New Jersey delivered voting equipment to emergency shelters so voters displaced by Superstorm Sandy last week could cast ballots. New York City made arrangements for shuttle buses to provide transportation for some in hard-hit areas unable to reach their polling places.
Judging from the long early voting lines in some places and the comments made in others, the voters were more than ready to have their say.
"I watch the news all the time, and I am ready for it to be over," said Jennifer Walker, 38, of Columbus, Ohio, who said she took time off from work to attend the president's speech during the day in a show of support. "I feel like he is getting better with the economy. I don't think it's hopeless. It takes time."
But Bryan Dobes, 21, a University of Iowa student from suburban Chicago, voted for Romney on Monday and said unemployment and spending have been too high under Obama. "He promised a lot of hope and change, and I'm not seeing it," he said of the president.
"No retreat, no surrender," sang rock icon Bruce Springsteen, warming up Obama's crowd on a frosty morning outside the State Capitol in Madison, Wis. The Boss then boarded Air Force One for his first flight. "Pretty cool," he judged it.
Romney had Kid Rock and the Marshall Tucker Band in the wings for his late appearances in Ohio and New Hampshire.
"This is it," the challenger said in a last-minute emailed request for campaign donations.
"I will lead us out of this economic crisis by implementing pro-growth policies that will create 12 million new jobs. With your help, I will deliver real change and a real recovery. America will be strong again."
In his longest campaign day, Romney raced from Florida to a pair of speeches in Virginia to Ohio and then an election eve rally in New Hampshire.
Obama selected Wisconsin, Ohio and Iowa for his final campaign day, an itinerary that reflected his campaign's decision to try and erect a Midwestern firewall against Romney's challenge.
Vice President Joe Biden and Republican running mate Paul Ryan of Wisconsin went through their final campaign paces, as well.
In Sterling, Va., not far from Washington, the vice president accused Republicans of running away from their record, but added, "a leopard can't change his spots."
Ryan started out in Reno, Nev., where he said the president has come up short in his promises to change Washington and repair the economy.
"This may be the best that Barack Obama can offer, but this is not the best America can," he said, before flying off to Colorado and Ohio. Then it was home to Wisconsin, where he is on the ballot for re-election to Congress in case Republicans were unsuccessful in the presidential campaign.
Conscientious to the end, supporters kept knocking on doors in search of a possibly decisive vote.
In Enfield, N.H., Obama volunteer Sarah Ayres recalled driving up a deserted dirt road, unsure if she would find the house she was looking for. She turned down a long driveway, she said, got out of her car, and was met by a friendly, white goat.
"There were no people home, but the goat was there, so I don't know if I should count that as a contact," she joked.