, WASHINGTON, Nov 6 – Americans head to the polls on Tuesday after a burst of last-minute campaigning by President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in a nailbiting contest unlikely to heal a deeply polarized nation.
After a long, expensive and fiercely negative campaign, voters will decide whether to re-elect Obama despite the plodding economy or hand the reins to Romney, who has vowed a return to prosperity through smaller government.
Democrat Obama, 51, leads his Republican foe by a whisker heading into polling day as he seeks to defy historical precedent that suggests incumbent presidents fail to win a second four-year term at times of high unemployment.
Romney, 65, a former Massachusetts governor blasted by critics as a rich plutocrat indifferent to middle class pain, would make history as the first Mormon president and promises to ignite economic growth and job creation.
Both men, exhausted by the last manic Monday of a campaign that has raged for two years, made their final, heartfelt plea to voters in late night rallies attended by fervent supporters.
“Tomorrow, from the granite of New Hampshire to the Rockies of Colorado, from the coastlines of Florida, to Virginia’s rolling hills, from the valleys of Ohio to these Iowa fields, we will keep America moving forward,” Obama said.
As he spoke in Iowa, the state that first nurtured his White House dreams in 2008, a single tear rolled down the president’s face as he wrapped up what was – win or lose – his last-ever campaign event.
Romney put an exclamation mark on his campaign with his own, rowdy late night rally, at a sports arena in New Hampshire, capping the most expensive campaign season in US history, which cost $6 billion.
“Tomorrow is a moment to look into the future and imagine what we can do, to put that past four years behind us and build a new future,” Romney said.
“Walk with me. Tomorrow, we begin a new tomorrow.”
Voters are not solely picking a president for the next four years on Tuesday.
They will also cast judgment on a third of the Democratic-led Senate and the entire Republican-run House of Representatives. But with neither chamber expected to change hands, the current political gridlock will likely linger.
In a quaint slice of Americana, the people of the hamlet of Dixville Notch, in northern New Hampshire, played their traditional role of casting the first votes in the election as the clock struck midnight.
And in a possible precursor of the tight race to come, Obama and Romney were tied at five votes, a historic first.
A dispiriting and negative White House race, so different from Obama’s euphoric change crusade of 2008, produced the election both sides expected – a down-to-the wire scrap for thin victory margins in a clutch of swing states.
Obama, America’s first African American president, on Tuesday led by the slimmest of margins in averages of national polls, which measure the likely popular vote, possibly helped by his leadership during superstorm Sandy.
The president’s polling leads in battleground states also stirred a quiet confidence in his campaign team.
Romney aides, however, predicted a surge of enthusiasm for the Republican would confound state polls, which they said overestimated the likely Democratic turnout and did not register the undercurrent of antipathy for Obama.
The central message of Obama’s campaign has been that he saved America from a second Great Depression after the economy was on the brink of collapse when he took over from president George W. Bush in 2009.
He claims credit for ending the war in Iraq, saving the US auto industry, killing Osama bin Laden, offering almost every American health insurance, and passing the most sweeping Wall Street reform in decades.