Americans went to the polls on Tuesday to decide whether to give President Obama a second term or to replace him with Mitt Romney after a long, hard-fought campaign that centred on who would heal the battered economy and what role government should play in the 21st century.
From makeshift voting sites in East Coast communities devastated by Hurricane Sandy to the more typical voting booths set up in school gyms, libraries and town halls across the rest of the country, people began lining up before dawn to cast their ballots - collectively writing the ending to a bitter, expensive presidential campaign in which the candidates, parties, and well-heeled outside groups were on pace to spend some $2.6 billion.
At the polling place at the Elk's Club in Fairfax, Virginia., outside Washington, D.C., voters braved temperatures in the low 30s to stand in an hour-long line to vote at 7 a.m.
Mr. Romney, a Republican who served as the governor of Massachusetts, cast his vote Tuesday morning near his home in Belmont, Massachusetts. Mr. Obama, a Democrat, voted Oct. 25 in Chicago - becoming one of more than 30 million people who voted early this year.
If both campaigns could seem small at times, the issues confronting the nation remained big: how to continue to rebuild after the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression; whether to implement Mr. Obama's health care law to cover the uninsured, or undo it; whether to reshape Medicare for future beneficiaries to try to curb its costs; whether to raise taxes to reduce the federal deficit or to rely on spending cuts alone; how to wind down the war in Afghanistan without opening the region to new dangers; and how to navigate the post-Arab Spring world.
On their frenzied final full day of campaigning, both candidates reprised their central arguments before crowds in the same handful of swing states where the campaign has been waged for much of the last year, as both men have battled for the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency. The campaigns were hoping that huge turnout efforts would tilt contested states their way.
For all the twists and turns that the race has taken since the candidates downed their first greasy pork chops on sticks at the Iowa State Fair, those core, competing messages have remained remarkably consistent. Mr. Obama reminded a crowd in Cincinnati on Monday how bad things were when he took office, listed his achievements and argued that he has more work to do.
"In 2008 we were in the middle of two wars and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression,'' Mr. Obama said. "Today, our businesses have created nearly 5.5 million new jobs. The American auto industry is back on top. Home values are on the rise. We're less dependent on foreign oil than at any time in 20 years. Because of the service and sacrifice of our brave men and women in uniform, the war in Iraq is over. The war in Afghanistan is coming to a close. Al Qaeda has been decimated. Osama bin Laden is dead. We've made progress."
Mr. Romney told a crowd in Lynchburg, Virginia, on Monday that the country needs a new direction after Mr. Obama. "He's tried to convince you that these last four years have been a success,'' he said. "And so 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 calls that 'Forward.' I call it 'Forewarned.' The same course we've been on won't lead to a better destination. The same path means $20 trillion of debt at the end of a second term. It means crippling unemployment continuing for another four years. It means stagnant take-home pay. It means depressed home values. And of course, it means a devastated military."
But at times the campaign has been as notable for what was left unsaid as for what was said.
Both men seemed to avoid speaking of some of their biggest legislative achievements. Mr. Romney rarely invoked the health care law he enacted as the governor of Massachusetts, which was a model for Mr. Obama's health care law which many Republicans derided as "Obamacare" and which Mr. Romney has vowed to repeal. And Mr. Obama, for his part, rarely spoke about the $787 billion stimulus bill he signed early in his term, which used a combination of tax cuts, aid to states and infrastructure spending to try to bolster the economy - but which was seen as insufficient by some liberals and as inefficient by some conservatives.
For all the clear differences between the two men, they were both somewhat hazy about their plans for the next four years.
Mr. Romney called for cutting income tax rates across the board by 20 per cent while offsetting the lost revenue by eliminating tax breaks, but failed to specify which ones, even after some nonpartisan groups questioned whether it was mathematically possible for him to achieve all his goals. He called for overhauling the Medicare system so that a decade from now, beneficiaries would receive fixed amounts of money from the federal government with which to buy private or public coverage - and even tapped Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, one of the main proponents of such an approach, as his running mate. But he declined to give details of just how it would work, making it difficult to evaluate.
And Mr. Obama did not lay out a detailed agenda for his second term, and instead spoke generally of trying to finish the things left undone in his first term. If he wins, though, he is still likely to face the opposition of the Republicans in Congress who have blocked many if his initiatives. So during the campaign Mr. Obama has made it clear that he still wants to rewrite the nation's immigration laws, which he failed to persuade Congress to do in his first term. In the course of three debates he did not even utter the words "climate change," an issue that was thrust to the fore soon afterward when Hurricane Sandy made landfall, destroying parts of the Jersey Shore and flooding Manhattan.
As tightly scripted as both campaigns were, there were moments when both candidates were knocked off their messages, sometimes in revealing ways.
Mr. Romney's trip abroad over the summer was overshadowed by controversy after he offended his British hosts by publicly questioning whether they were prepared for the London Olympics. Then, there was the release of a secretly-recorded videotape that captured Mr. Romney telling wealthy donors that 47 per cent of Americans pay no taxes and see themselves as victims. And one of the big moments of his campaign, his speech at the Republican National Convention, was upstaged by the odd introduction he received from Clint Eastwood, who spoke to an empty chair representing the president.
Mr. Obama's low-wattage performance at the first presidential debate, in Denver - he later joked that he had had a "nice long nap" there - wound up dispiriting his supporters and firing up opponents. The deadly attacks on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks thrust the president into a complex national security crisis near the end of the campaign. And earlier in the campaign, Mr. Obama was knocked off his timetable and publicly endorsed same-sex marriage earlier than he had planned after Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. got out ahead of the administration and voiced his own support of it.
The biggest unplanned moment, of course, occurred when Hurricane Sandy hit and knocked the presidential campaign off the front pages the week before the election. As the scope of the disaster sank in, there was a brief respite from campaigning. Then it resumed, at a more frenetic pace than ever.