By NANCY BENAC, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney pulled the plug on his first presidential run on Feb. 7, 2008, and immediately served notice that he wasn't about to fade away. "I hate to lose," he told conservatives that day.
Barack Obama wasn't paying too much attention to Romney just then. The first-term Illinois senator was in a bare-knuckled brawl with Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination and, if he got past the New York senator and former first lady, was calculating his odds of defeating Republican Sen. John McCain.
Four and a half years later, Romney is not to be discounted. He and Obama are in a down-to-the-wire race for the White House that has split the nation down the middle after a long, hard slog that upended conventional wisdom time and again, smashed campaign spending records and pushed the limits of saturation politics.
After all those ads, nasty and nastier, was it any wonder that a 4-year-old's heaving sobs about hearing too much of "Bronco Bama and Mitt Romney" went viral in the campaign's closing days?
The arc of this campaign has taken the nation from a flavor-of-the-month Republican primary campaign, captured in a seemingly never-ending series of GOP debates and buzzwords like "9-9-9" and "oops," to a general election race that keeps circling back to the economy after detours into foreign policy, social issues and even the employment status of Big Bird.
Along the way, Campaign 2012 has brought us a rambling one-sided conversation by Clint Eastwood at the GOP convention, a fresh dose of Bill Clinton's charms at the Democratic convention, and a jarring intrusion from a superstorm named Sandy. Celebrity businessman Donald Trump had a couple of cameos, as did Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke, who railed against Romney's health care policies, and Scott Van Duzer, the Florida pizza man who hoisted Obama off the floor in a giant bear hug.
Now, on Election Day's brink, with 27 million people already having voted, Obama appears to have more options than Romney for reaching the 270 electoral votes that will clinch victory. But half of Americans think the country is on the wrong track, and almost as many disapprove of how Obama is handling his job.