WASHINGTON, Nov 4: Democrat Barack Obama confidently sensed victory in his historic bid to become America's first black president as he wrapped up a marathon two-year campaign. Republican John McCain however, stubbornly promised an underdog upset in Tuesday's election.
Obama came up a winner in the first official results announced early on Tuesday from two small towns in New Hampshire, where a tradition of casting the first votes on election day lives on.
Obama defeated McCain by a count of 15 to 6 in Dixville Notch, and the town of Hart's Location reported 17 votes for the Democrat, 10 for the Republican and two for write-in Ron Paul. Both towns had favored George W Bush in the last two elections.
The rivals, separated by 25 years and a seemingly unbridgeable political gulf, had agreed on one thing during the longest presidential campaign in US history- their promise to slam the door on the era of George W. Bush.
But they were deeply at odds over how to fix the nation's crumbling economy and end the 5 1/2-year war in Iraq, the issues that sent Bush's job approval plummeting to a record low at the end of his 8-year presidency.
Record numbers of Americans were expected at polling stations across the US adding their ballots to 29 million citizens who had already voted in 30 states. The early vote tally suggested an advantage for Obama, with official statistics showing that Democrats voted in larger numbers than Republicans in North Carolina, Colorado, Florida and Iowa. All four states voted for Bush in 2004.
Sad news overshadowed the campaign on Monday when Obama announced the death of his grandmother, whose personality and bearing shaped him deeply. Madelyn Payne Dunham was 86 when she died of cancer late Sunday in Hawaii.
``She's gone home,'' Obama said, tears running down both cheeks as tens of thousands of rowdy supporters at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte grew silent as he announced Dunham's death. The family said a private ceremony would be held later.
He explained to the North Carolina audience how Dunham inspired his campaign by her lifetime of hard work and sacrifice.
``In just one more day we have the opportunity to honor all those quiet heroes all across America,'' Obama said. ``We can bring change to America to make sure their work and their sacrifice is honored. That's what we're fighting for.''
Obama wrapped up his campaign by speaking to a crowd estimated at more than 70,000 people in Manassas, Virginia, near the site of the first major battle of the American Civil War that ended slavery, before heading home to Chicago to await the election returns.
McCain, a 72-year-old four-term Arizona senator, ended the contest on Monday with a frantic and grueling dash through several traditionally Republican states still not securely in his camp or even leaning to Obama.
McCain stopped in Florida, Virginia, Indiana, New Mexico and Nevada. And he again passed through Pennsylvania, the only state that voted Democratic in 2004 where he still hoped for a win.
McCain, too, promised to turn the page of the era of George W. Bush and said he sensed an upset in the making.
``This momentum, this enthusiasm convinces me we're going to win tomorrow,'' McCain told a raucous evening rally in Henderson, Nevada. He was
closing out the endurance test past midnight at a home-state rally in Prescott, Arizona.
Obama has been running television commercials in Arizona in the campaign's final days after polls showed a tightening race.
On election eve, the 47-year-old Obama, a first-term senator from Illinois, was favored to win all the states Democrats captured in 2004, when Bush defeated Democratic Sen. John Kerry. That would give him 251 electoral votes.
He was leading or tied in several states won by Bush, giving him several paths to the 270 vote threshold, such as victories in Ohio or Florida, or in a combination of smaller states.
McCain, meanwhile, must hold as many Bush states as possible while trying to capture a Democratic stronghold, such as Pennsylvania.
While no battleground state was ignored, Virginia, where no Democrat has won in 40 years, and Ohio, where no Republican president has ever lost, seemed most coveted. Together, they account for 33 electoral votes that McCain must win.
Obama sprinted into the lead after economic concerns overwhelmed the war in Iraq, as the primary concern among voters.
Even though Republican experts argued the race was tightening, several polls suggested Obama's lead was growing.
A USA Today/Gallup poll published on Monday found likely voters nationwide favoring Obama by 11 points over McCain, 53-42 percent, with a margin of error of 2 percentage points. Other polls showed Obama with a 7 or 8 percentage-point lead.
Polls conducted by Quinnipiac University showed Obama with significant leads in two critical swing states, Ohio and Pennsylvania, and tied with McCain in Florida, where the prize is 27 electoral votes. A win for Obama in any of these three states would be hard for McCain to overcome.
The American presidential election amounts to separate contests in the 50 US states plus the District of Columbia, home to the capital city. At stake are 538 electors, with the winning candidate needing to capture at least half plus one. Electors are apportioned to the states roughly according to population.
The rivals began election eve in Florida, a traditionally Republican state with 27 electoral votes. Polls there show a close contest.
Obama drew 9,000 or so at a rally in Jacksonville, while across the state, a crowd estimated at roughly 1,000 turned out for McCain.
``We are one day away from change in America,'' said Obama, whose victory would mark one of the most radical social shifts in American history.
McCain, however, sought to raise fears among Americans that Obama was outside the American mainstream. ``Sen. Obama is in the far left lane. He's more liberal than a guy who calls himself a Socialist and that's not easy,'' McCain said, referring to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who formerly called himself a socialist.
As he sought to distance himself from the unpopular Bush, McCain stressed he was deeply at odds with White House economic policies while promising to clean house in the capital after years of scandal.
The likelihood of Republican defeats in both the White House and congressional races was not lost on Bush, who has become virtually invisible in the final days of the campaign.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the president was out of sight because ``the Republican Party wanted to make this election about John McCain.''
McCain's running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, raced through five traditionally Republican states _ Ohio, Missouri, Iowa, Colorado and Nevada _ in an effort to boost conservative turnout for McCain.
Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, Obama's running mate, campaigned in Missouri, Ohio and held a late night rally in Pennsylvania.
Obama has benefited from an astounding record fundraising effort and capitalized on a US demographic shift as more young and non-white voters enter the electorate.
The Republicans have tried to curtail Obama's surge, dubbing him too inexperienced, too liberal and too tainted by associations with the political left to trust with the presidency. The message appealed to core Republican voters, but appears to have failed to convince a significant number of Democrats and independents.
In the campaign's final days, the Republicans launched a barrage of phone calls to voters in battleground states that featured Hillary Rodham Clinton's criticism of Obama in the Democratic primary. Clinton, who has been campaigning for Obama, denounced the calls.
The Pennsylvania Republican Party also unveiled a TV ad featuring Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, declaring ``God damn America!'' in a sermon.
During the primaries, Obama was forced to distance himself from Wright, but McCain said he would not make the pastor an issue in the general election.