By William M. Welch, USA TODAY
President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney each scored state victories Tuesday night though the outcome of their long battle for the White House remained close and undecided.
Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, took an early lead in the popular vote and as expected won states that were part of his southern and midwest strongholds.
Romney carried Kentucky, West Virginia, South Carolina, Indiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Georgia.
Obama won Romney's home state of Massachusetts and seven other states plus the District of Columbia as he carried the northeast and parts of the mid-Atlantic region.. He carried his home state of Illinois as well as Vice President Biden's Delaware.
With an electorate sharply divided on many issues, the Democratic incumbent and Republican challenger were awaiting results from decisive battleground states that were the focus of their campaigns.
The real race was for electoral votes awarded by winning individual states, with 270 votes needed to win.
Exit polls of voters in key states showed the economy was the top issue on voters' minds, and on that and other key issues the nation remains sharply divided. It was clear that Obama would not do as well as he did in 2008, when he won with a 7.3% margin of the popular vote.
The exit polls suggested Romney was winning among men by double digits. Obama was winning among women, who were a focus of much of the campaign, but by a smaller margin than four years ago.
The polling suggested Romney had a narrow advantage among suburban voters, who were critical for Obama's 2008 election. The president retained a strong lead in cities.
The president appeared to have gained an edge among late-deciding voters, the exit polls suggested. Among those who decided who to vote for in the last few days, 49% voted for Obama, 46% for Romney. Among those who said Obama's response to Hurricane Sandy was important to their vote, Obama was favored by almost two-to-one.
Across battleground states where the outcome was in doubt, and where both candidates focused most of their energies and dollars, more than a million political commercials aired on TV stations during the long campaign.
Romney made final campaign dashes to Ohio and Pennsylvania on Election Day. Biden matched the late GOP campaigning with his own Ohio appearance, while Obama made calls from a campaign office in Chicago and relaxed with a game of basketball.
Obama awaited the results in Chicago. Romney was in Massachusetts.
After 17 months and more than $2 billion spent by each presidential candidate, it was up to the people who flooded churches, schools and auditoriums to cast their ballots. Campaigns on both sides did last-minute blitzes to boost turnout and get out their supporters, and lines were reported at voting places all over the nation.
There were glitches and confusion, but by late afternoon things seemed to be going smoothly in most places.
The struggling economy was on voters minds.
"Business is rough. Everybody wants someone to blame," said Frank Robles, 45, who employs 15 at his North Las Vegas shoe store. Yet Robles is supporting Obama, saying he's not responsible for the worst of the economic crisis: "People need to give him a chance."
But A.J. Jotipra, 69, a retired IBM worker says Obama has had his chance. Jotipra lost his Henderson, Nev., house to foreclosure last year. "The last four years, Obama has done nothing," Jotipra says.
In Ohio, a key battleground for both sides, the atmosphere at some polling places was informal and happy, despite the intense campaign and barrage of negative TV ads.
Retired nurse Nancy Manion, 74, of Dublin, Ohio, was excited to vote for Romney "to put God back in schools." But she also was thankful that campaign ads would end.
"Too many ads, too much slander," Manion says.
Ohio State student Tarik Al-fayyomi, 18, was thrilled to cast his first ballot ever - for Obama.
"My friends in California tell me they have a beach and sun. I tell them we're a swing state and we have an election. It's a proud time to be an Ohioan," says Al-fayyomi, who lives in the affluent Columbus suburb of Dublin with his father, a native of Egypt, and his mother, a native New Yorker.
In Northern Virginia, Cat Connor, 24, cast her vote for Obama, as she did four years ago, but more reluctantly this time. Connor, who works for a non-profit organization, remembers how excited she was to vote for the president four years ago.
"This time, not so much, Honestly, it was kind of a messy campaign. I honestly wasn't sold on either (Obama or Romney). It was a coin flip, really," she said while voting in Herndon, Va.
Robert Adams, who has doctorates in business and psychology, said he voted for Romney and had four words to describe the campaign: "Too long. Too noisy." He said that "after awhile I just had the mute button on the television all the time." He said that "this campaign was too personal and not enough about what anyone is going to do.''
Alexi Halavazis, 25, also of Herndon, Va., cast his first presidential vote for Obama. He said the reason was Obama's health care law, which allows him to be covered by his parents' medical coverage. With "Obamacare, I can stay on my parents' plan, at least for another year, and it helps my parents because of the pre-existing conditions" requirement that they cannot be denied health care, Halavazis said.
Obama was expected to win Las Vegas and surrounding Clark County, where 70% of the state's electorate lives; Republicans were expected to win the rural areas and were hoping for a decisive win in the biggest northern county, Washoe.
In St. Charles, Mo., across the Missouri River from St. Louis, a steady stream of voters filed into the polling station at Harris Elementary despite a cold, pelting rain.
Debra Thompson, 61, an interior design consultant, said she voted for Romney in the hopes that he'll improve the economy.
"People are so tired of the way things are," she said. "They just want to see change." She added: "We have to get the economy going again."
Rainy Hamilton Jr., 56, of Detroit stood in line to vote for almost two hours Tuesday morning, the longest it has ever taken him to vote. But he said he didn't mind one bit.
Hamilton viewed the approximately 200 people waiting in line as a positive sign.
"I was hoping there would be a wait," Hamilton, an architect, said. "It means people are excited. I'm excited because I hope it means President Obama will be re-elected and I'm glad because people are voting."
Poll workers around Greenville County, S.C., were struggling to process heavy turnout and long lines led to voter confusion for at least one polling place, said Conway Belangia, county elections director.
Belangia said poll workers at a high school were checking voter registrations at a faster pace than their counterparts could process voters through voting machines.
In Connecticut, Av Harris, a spokesman for the secretary of the State, said voter turnout was "heavy" throughout the state. So far, the impact of Hurricane Sandy on voter turnout was "negligible," he said.
There have been some problems, like long lines and not enough polling staff in West Hartford.
"Some people have been frustrated by long waits," he said. "Heavy turnout will cause some delays, and people should expect that,"
In Dixville Notch, N.H., one of two tiny New Hampshire villages that get to cast the first votes of the presidential election, Obama and Romney tied with five votes each - something that has never happened before.
"I'm bewildered, that's the best way to describe my reaction," said voter Peter Johnson, adding he didn't think that Obama would get that many votes.
David Heit, 26, of Denver, woke up at 6:30 a.m. to make the short walk to the First Unitarian Church to cast his ballot for Obama. Ten minutes before the polls opened, there were a few people gathering to vote there.
Heit, who works at an after-school program for the Boys and Girls Club, said he's supporting Obama because of his health care and tax policies as well as his support of the Federal Pell Grant program.
"I'm voting to move my country continually in the right direction," he said. "I'm voting to make sure everyone has their right to get health care, to make sure women have their rights to health care and abortion."
A few miles outside of Raleigh, N.C., voters streamed into the Wake County Firearms Education & Training Center to cast ballots. Pat Crosswhite doesn't think Obama deserves four more years.
"I think what he started is terrible," said Crosswhite, who does voice-overs for television commercials. "I don't want him to finish it."
Besides long lines at polling places there are disputes over voter identification. Tuesday's vote is already being challenged in some locations.
Both campaigns have assembled legal teams to leap into action at any hint of voting irregularities, such as voting machine malfunctions, allegations of voter intimidation and challenges to the legitimacy of absentee and "provisional" votes.
On Sunday, a Florida judge extended early-voting hours in Orange County - a key swing region of a prized battleground state - after Democrats sued to provide more time for long lines of people trying to cast votes.
New York and New Jersey were still scrambling to resolve voting problems created by Sandy. New Jersey said it would expand online voting for those whose polling places have been disrupted, a move New York election officials rejected. New York has also had to relocate polling places, which could create voting challenges.
Voters were taking special election shuttles from storm-hit areas and voting by affidavit from any polling place they could reach after officials put emergency measures in place.
"It's important because it's our day," said Agim Coma, a 25-year-old construction worker who lost his apartment and car to the storm but was first in line to vote in one New Jersey town. "No matter what happens - hurricanes, tornadoes - it's our day to vote."
Suzanne Krause of Great Neck, N.Y., lost power in the storm and rode out the week with family on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
But on Tuesday, she was headed back to Long Island to check on her house and to cast her ballot, which she feels is important. Her community experienced lots of fallen trees, she said.
"I'm going back now because I want to vote," said Krause, 66.
Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida - all critical swing states for the presidential election - have faced pitched battles throughout the summer over voter-identification laws. As late as last week, Ohio election officials were issuing new rules for what ID is required and how the voter's identification should be certified.
Biden made an unannounced stop in Cleveland after voting in his home state of Delaware and on his way to Chicago, where he was going to watch election returns with Obama. His plane was at the airport at the same time that Romney's plane was there.
In New London, Pa., a long line snaked out the door as hundreds came to vote.
Poll workers asked voters for identification but didn't require it. State legislators passed a voter-ID law earlier this year, but a state court blocked its implementation out of concerns it would disenfranchise legitimate voters who couldn't get identification.
If voters did not have identification, they were given a flier explaining the law "for coming elections."
In Jefferson, Wis., a steady stream of voters filed into City Hall.
Kaitlyn Linder, 20, voted for the first time with her partner, Sheena Schultz, 22. Linder, a caregiver, voted for Obama "because he stood up for our rights" as a couple.
Mark McQuin, 39, a project manager, also voted for Obama. But afterward he said what many people Tuesday were thinking: "I'm ready for it to be over."
Contributing: Julie Schmit, Nevada; Judy Keen in Wisconsin; Chuck Raasch, Alexandria, Va.; Dennis Cauchon in Ohio; Yamiche Alcindor, Denver; Donna Leinwand Leger, Orlando; Gregory Korte, Washington, D.C.; Melanie Eversley, New York; Mike Chalmers in Pennsylvania; Gary Stoller, Connecticut; Carolyn Pesce, McLean, Va.; Florida Today; Lousiville Courier Journal; Detroit Free Press; Greenville (S.C.) News; and The Associated Press