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After long campaign, voters finally have their say

Mitt Romney dashed from his Belmont voting place to make last-minute campaign stops in Ohio and Pennsylvania. President Obama campaigned via satellite from Chicago as he urged voters to support him.

And in the end, in the American tradition, the candidates for president on this last day of the campaign ceded the power to the polling place, with little left for pundits and pollsters to say. Millions of Americans, having heard the arguments and advertisements for months, had the final word.

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Across the nation, many voters waited in long lines to cast their ballots, the snaking queues around courthouses and town halls serving as the final expression of the passion generated by Obama’s reelection bid and Romney’s challenge.

With national polls indicating a statistical dead heat, and the race considered tight in battleground states such as Ohio and New Hamphire, both campaigns made their last get-out-the-vote push, calling voters, offering rides to the polls, and preparing for what each hoped would be their victory party, either in Romney’s Boston or Obama’s Chicago.

Romney was cheered by supporters as he and his wife, Ann, voted in Belmont, where they maintain a residence. Declaring that he felt “very good,” Romney parried with reporters who asked who got his vote. “I think you know,” Romney said.

Obama, who had taken advantage of early voting to cast a ballot for himself on Oct. 25 in Illinois, began Election Day by traveling to a small campaign office on the South Side of Chicago, where volunteers greeted him with applause. He immediately sat down to make some telephone calls to campaign workers in the neighboring swing state of Wisconsin.

Dressed in a blue suit, white shirt, and striped tie, Obama took off his jacket, placed it on a chair, and said, “Let’s get busy. We’ve got to round up some votes.”

The possibility existed that the race would be so close that the result will be unknown for hours, and possibly days, after the polls close. Legions of campaign lawyers prepared to challenge the results, reviving memories of how the 2000 election wasn’t decided until the Supreme Court ruled.

It was the most expensive general election campaign in history, marked by its persistent tightness, with neither candidate able to retain a lead of statistical significance. Obama seemed to develop a lead just after the Democratic National Convention, but then slumped in the first debate. Romney capitalized, and appeared to have momentum carry him back into contention. But that seemed to stall, in part because of Hurricane Sandy.

The New Hampshire mountain hamlet of Dixville Notch, which has a tradition of being the first to open its polls – at midnight – seemed to provide an omen for the election: 10 voters cast a ballot, five for Obama and five for Romney.

The Romney campaign set up a war room inside Boston’s TD Garden. The floor that normally contains a hockey rink or basketball court was filled with rows of tables where staffers and volunteers fielded phone calls and monitored early election results.

The race was so tight that Romney, who initially planned to remain in Boston after voting for himself in nearby Belmont, altered his schedule to make two late dashes for support, heading to Cleveland and Pittsburgh. He was scheduled to return this afternoon to Boston, where he planned to stay at a hotel suite to watch the returns before attending an election night party at the Boston Convention Center.

Obama, in a moment made for the television cameras, sat down this morning at a Chicago campaign office and began making phone calls.

“Hi, is this Annie? This is Barack Obama,” the president said. “This is Barack Obama. You know, the president?”

After the calls, Obama told reporters of his gratitude for the reception he has received on the campaign trail and the work of his volunteers.

“The great thing about these campaigns is after all the TV ads and all the fund-raising and all the debates and all the electioneering, it comes down to this. One day, and these incredible folks who are working so hard, making phone calls, making sure that people go out to vote. So I just want to say thank you to the American people,” Obama said.

“It’s a source of great optimism for me whenever I come to Election Day because I end up having so much confidence in the decency and goodness and wisdom of the very folks who are working so hard trying to move their own small piece of this country forward.”

Obama also congratulated Romney “on a spirited campaign”

He added, “I know that his supporters are just as engaged and just as enthusiastic and working just as hard today. We feel confident we’ve got the votes to win, that it’s going to depend ultimately on whether those votes turn out.

“I’m looking forward to the results. And I expect that we’ll have a good night. But no matter what happens, I just want to say how much I appreciate everybody who has supported me, everybody who has worked so hard on my behalf. And again, I want to congratulate Gov. Romney and his team for a hard-fought race as well. OK?”

Obama then stopped at the Fairmont Hotel in Chicago, where he had scheduled a string of satellite interviews with television stations in swing states, including Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio, Florida, Colorado, and Nevada.

Then the president planned to play his traditional Election Day pickup basketball game with volunteers and staff, eat lunch and dinner at home, and deliver a victory or concession speech at the sprawling McCormick convention center on the shores of Lake Michigan.

Behind the scenes, both campaigns have assembled legal teams to prepare for post-election challenges, and they had observers at election sites around the country. Republicans today raised concerns about officials from their party not being allowed into election sites in Philadelphia.

Legal challenges have also already started, which could become a focal point in the aftermath of a tight election. A hearing is set for Wednesday morning in Ohio, for example, over the validity of certain provisional ballots. Several voting rights groups are challenging a directive issued last week by the secretary of state, a Republican, saying the ballots wouldn’t count if voters didn’t fill out certain information.

If the election comes down to Ohio, those provisional ballots – which by law won’t be finalized until Nov. 17 – will be a crucial area for challenges. A recount in Ohio would be triggered if the margin of victory is 0.25 percent or less; it would be triggered in Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Florida, if the result is 0.5 percent or less.

The final weeks of the presidential race seemed to pit a growing organic energy that Romney had at his rallies with a more nuts and bolts ground operation that the Obama campaign has built over the past four years.

Obama’s campaign targeted several demographics – Hispanic, young, and black voters – and tried to drive up turnout in urban areas. Romney’s campaign spent more time with middle-class white voters, trying to drive up votes in the suburbs and rural areas.

Romney launched his campaign a year and a half ago from a field in Stratham, N.H. But it really began years earlier, in the twilight of his four-year term as Massachusetts governor. He assembled a team to help lead his campaign, and he began staking out positions that were more conservative than he took during his political life in Massachusetts.

The move didn’t work, and he lost the 2008 Republican primary to Senator John McCain of Arizona. But almost immediately, Romney began laying the groundwork for his 2012 campaign. He wrote a book, “No Apology,” outlining his vision for the country and the world. He donated to candidates in key swing states, hoping they would return the favor.

He used a superior campaign organization and a large financial advantage to capture a lead in the Republican primary that he never relinquished. But he was also bloodied in the primaries by opponents who - to the delight of the Obama campaign - cast Romney’s career at Bain Capital as an exercise in vulture capitalism in which workers lost jobs while Romney got rich.

In the spring and the summer, once it was clear Romney would be the nominee, the Obama campaign built upon the primary attacks by blanketing the airwaves with ads that sought to feed the impression of Romney as a wealthy businessman who was out-of-touch, who was unwilling to release his tax returns, and who made his money by laying people off and by investing in foreign companies.

Romney was also beset by gaffes of his own doing. He went on an overseas trip that was marked by verbal mistakes that overshadowed any idea that he was a man of the world who was proficient in American diplomacy.

The release of a video taken at a fundraiser in May – in which Romney tells his donors that 47 percent of the country considered themselves “victims,” didn’t pay taxes, and were too dependent on government to vote for him – further damaged his campaign.

But at the first presidential debate, Romney reintroduced himself to the country as a far more moderate, compassionate, and understanding candidate. He seemed to catch Obama, and his campaign, off guard and Romney immediately began to surge in the polls. The performance breathed new life into Romney’s campaign, giving them a newfound sense that he could win.

Obama performed far better in the following two debates, but by then the race turned toward a handful of swing states that had been on the minds of campaign advisers since the race began. The candidates spent almost all of the last four weeks in Florida, Virginia, Colorado, New Hampshire, and Ohio.

Michael Kranish can be reached at kranish@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKranish. Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com; Brian MacQuarrie at macquarrie@globe.com.
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