By DAVID ESPO, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
WASHINGTON — The White House, the Senate, the tea party revolution in the House and 11 governorships are on the line Tuesday in a fantastically costly, relentlessly negative election played out in unsettled economic times.
There is more at stake, though – the future of "Obamacare," the fate of Medicare, too – in a land where the campaign tab is counted in the billions of dollars, where voters have been polled to the point of rebelliousness, and where a 4-year-old approached national hero status when she tearily protested the onslaught of campaign advertising.
"I'm tired of Bronco Bamma and Mitt Romney," sobbed Abby Evans of Fort Collins, Colo., in a video that went viral in the campaign's final, frantic days.
And why not? The rhetoric alone was cringe-inducing.
Democrats accused Romney of a "war on women." Romney said President Barack Obama was waging a "war on coal."
Apart from the candidates, divided government – perhaps a politically correct term for dysfunctional government – is on the ballot after a two-year stretch that produced gridlock on many issues and record-low congressional approval ratings.
A victory by Democrat Obama would ensure the survival of the health care law that Republicans oppose so strongly, even if they win contested control of the Senate and, as expected, hold the House.
A triumph by Republican challenger Romney would slam the door on tax increases on the wealthy, even if Democrats demand them as the price for a deficit deal that includes curtailing the costs of programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
As well, the winner could wind up appointing one or more new justices to the Supreme Court, where four justices are older than 70. The potential exists to alter the balance of a tribunal that recently has issued 5-4 rulings on abortion, affirmative action, campaign finance and religion in public life.
The economy has trumped all other issues in a campaign carried out in the shadow of slow growth, high unemployment and huge federal deficits. Heading into the race's final weekend, the government reported that 171,000 jobs were created in October. Unemployment ticked up to 7.9 percent.
"The question of this election is, `Do you want four years of the same or do you want real change?'" Romney asked an audience in West Allis, Wis., on Friday. He said, correctly, that unemployment is higher than when Obama took office, and he contended the president would fail to improve the economy with a second term. "Four more days," his supported chanted.
Obama countered that more than 5 million jobs have been created since the depths of the Great Recession. He ended the campaign as he began it, insisting the election wasn't a referendum on his performance in office, but a choice between him and his rival. It's "between going back to the top-down policies that crashed our economy or adapting the kinds of policies that will make sure we've got a strong and growing middle class," the incumbent said Friday in Hilliard, Ohio.
Going into the final weekend of the campaign, opinion polls showed a race for the popular vote so close that only a statistically insignificant point or two separated the two rivals. Soundings in the nine battleground states tightened after Obama's poor performance in the first debate, on Oct. 3, and stayed that way.
Yet Republicans quietly acknowledged that Romney had so far been unable to achieve the breakthroughs needed in Ohio and Wisconsin, and he left it to running mate Paul Ryan to make a campaign-ending trip to Nevada rather than go himself.
Looking elsewhere for electoral votes, Romney and his allies sought to expand the political map into Pennsylvania and, to a lesser extent, Minnesota and Michigan. Obama's aides expressed confidence about all three, although some private Democratic polls showed relatively close contests and the two sides engaged in a late advertising war.
Not counting those three states, Obama appeared certain to carry 15 states and the District of Columbia, accounting for 191 of the 270 electoral votes required for victory.
Romney was similarly secure in 23 states, also for 191 electoral votes.
The other nine states have seen much of the campaigning by the two men and their running mates, Ryan for Romney and Vice President Joe Biden for Obama. They were also the targets of most of the nearly $1 billion in television advertising financed by the candidates and their allies, both named and anonymous.
The nine battleground states account for 110 electoral votes combined, and include areas with particularly high joblessness (Nevada and North Carolina) as well as low unemployment (Iowa, New Hampshire and Virginia). Also large Hispanic populations (Colorado and Florida), an economy heavily dependent on the auto industry (Ohio) and the home of Romney's running mate (Wisconsin).
They reflect many of the key differences that have defined the presidential struggle. Among them are the competing visions of economic policy, the disagreement over raising taxes on upper-income Americans, the 2009 auto bailout that Obama said saved an industry and that Romney opposed, and immigration, where the Republican sought to move to the middle after calling during the primaries on illegal immigrants to self-deport.
The Senate races feature all that – and more.
Republicans must gain three for a majority if Romney wins the White House, otherwise four. There are 33 seats on the ballot, 23 currently in Democratic hands and 10 in Republican, a lopsided split that for months made the GOP favored to capture control.
But a series of unexpected turns, including Republican Sen. OIympia Snowe's retirement in Maine, Missouri Rep. Todd Akin's remark that women's bodies have a way of preventing pregnancy after "legitimate rape," and tea party-backed state Treasurer Richard Mourdock's primary victory over veteran Republican Sen. Richard Lugar in Indiana have all complicated the party's task.
Now, strategists in both parties rate Democratic Sen. Rep. Claire McCaskill the favorite for a new term in Missouri. Independent former Gov. Angus King appears to hold an advantage over major party rivals in Maine, where Democrats sought to blunt GOP attacks. Mourdock is struggling against Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly in a race where a Libertarian candidate, Andrew Horning, appears to be draining votes from the Republican.
Even so, there are more than enough competitive races to leave the overall outcome in doubt. The closest of them, judging from the polls, are in Virginia and Wisconsin, two states where Democrats are retiring. Also in Montana, where Democratic Sen. Jon Tester is in a struggle with Rep. Dennis Rehberg, and Massachusetts, where late-campaign polls suggest Republican Sen. Scott Brown is slipping in a race with Elizabeth Warren.
Nowhere is the influence of outside groups tested more than in Ohio, where Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown has been hit with more than $30 million in televised attack ads, designed to deliver a victory for challenger Josh Mandel.
Not even Democrats claim they will pick up the 25 seats they need to win House control, a virtual concession that the tea party-infused majority that swept to power two years ago will remain. All 435 seats are on the ballot, although only about 60 are seriously contested.
About two dozen of those involve first-termers. One freshman, Rep. Allen West of Florida, has spent more than $13 million trying to return to Congress.
Once-a-decade redistricting to take population changes into effect forced incumbents to face off in five races.
One of them gave the campaign a particularly memorable moment. That came in Los Angeles when Rep. Brad Sherman seized the shoulder of Rep. Howard Berman during a debate, yanked him toward his chest and shouted, "You want to get into this?" The two men – both Democrats – stood nose to nose before a sheriff's deputy moved between them.
"I should not have done that," Sherman said afterward. He is favored to win.
In gubernatorial races, Democratic retirements in Washington, Montana, North Carolina and New Hampshire created opportunities for Republican gains.