WASHINGTON — Two fierce competitors who've given their all, President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney now yield center stage to voters Tuesday for an Election Day choice that will frame the contours of government and the nation for years to come.
After a grinding presidential campaign that packed suspense to the finish, Americans head into polling places in sleepy hollows, bustling cities and superstorm-ravaged beach towns deeply divided. All sides are awaiting, in particular, a verdict from the nine battleground states whose votes will determine which man can piece together the 270 electoral votes needed for victory.
Obama has more options for getting there. So Romney decided to make a late dash to Cleveland and Pittsburgh on Tuesday while running mate Paul Ryan threw in stops in Cleveland and Richmond, Va.
Obama visited a campaign office close to his home in Chicago and was met by applause and tears from volunteers before he picked up a phone to call voters in neighboring Wisconsin. He told reporters that the election comes down to which side can get the most supporters to turn out.
"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," the president said.
Romney was asked on WTAM radio in Cleveland whether he agreed that voters always get it right in the end. "I won't guarantee that they'll get it right, but I think they will," Romney replied.
Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, were among the first voters Tuesday in at a polling place in Greenville, Del., Biden's home state. Smiling broadly, Biden waited in line with other voters and greeted them with a handshake. Outside he sent a message to people across the country who may encounter crowded polling places. "I encourage you to stand in line as long as you have to," he told television cameras.
The Obamas had voted last month in an effort to encourage supporters to vote early. The men on the GOP ticket each voted with their wives at their side Tuesday morning in their hometowns — Romney in Belmont, Mass., and Ryan in Janesville, Wis. — then headed to meet in Cleveland for some retail politicking at restaurants and other unannounced stops. The last-minute nature of the swing made it too difficult to arrange a big public event, but their hope was their joint visit would get local news coverage that might translate to more support.
"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," Romney told Richmond radio station WRVA. "I mean, you'd say to yourself, 'Holy cow, why didn't I keep working?' And so I'm going to make sure I never have to look back with anything other than the greatest degree of satisfaction on this whole campaign."
Both sides cast the Election Day choice 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 problems.
"We can make sure that we make even greater progress going forward in putting folks back to work and making sure that they've got decent take-home pay, making sure that they have the health insurance that they need, making sure we're protecting Medicare and Social Security," Obama said in an interview broadcast Tuesday on "The Steve Harvey Morning Show." ''All those issues are on the ballot, and so I'm hoping that everybody takes this seriously."
Romney argued that Obama had his chance to help Americans financially and blew it. "If it comes down to economics and jobs, this is an election I should win," Romney told Cleveland station WTAM.
With both sides keeping up the onslaught of political ads in battleground states right into Election Day, on one thing, at least, there was broad agreement: "I am ready for it to be over," said nurse Jennifer Walker in Columbus, Ohio.