Barack Obama leads in national and key battleground state polling. Democrats look to this "election for the ages" to expand their powers in the White House and Congress. (Photo: Reuters)
Washington - Counting down to Election Day, Barack Obama appears within reach of becoming the nation's first black president as the epic campaign draws to a close against a backdrop of economic crisis and lingering war. John McCain, the battle-scarred warrior, holds out hope for a Truman-beats-Dewey-style upset.
Whoever wins, the country's 44th president will immediately confront some of the most difficult economic challenges since the Great Depression.
In that effort, he'll almost surely be working with a stronger Democratic majority in Congress, as well as among governors and state legislatures nationwide. GOP incumbents at every level are endangered just eight years after President Bush's election ignited talk of lasting Republican Party dominance.
It's been an extraordinary campaign of shattered records, ceilings and assumptions. Indeed, a race for the ages.
Democrat Obama has exuded confidence in the campaign's final days, reaching for a triumph of landslide proportions.
"The die is being cast as we speak," says campaign manager David Plouffe.
Undeterred, Republican McCain vows to fight on, bidding for an upset reminiscent of Democrat Harry S. Truman's stunning defeat of Thomas E. Dewey in 1948.
Looking back only to early this year, campaign manager Rick Davis says, "We are witnessing perhaps, I believe, one of the greatest comebacks since John McCain won the primary."
The odds for Republicans in 2008 have been long from the start: Voters often thwart the party that's been in power for two terms. And this year, larger factors are working against the GOP: the war in Iraq, now in its sixth year, and the crisis on Wall Street and in the larger economy. Voters deeply distrust government and crave a new direction.
Republicans are girding for widespread losses.
"It's a fairly toxic atmosphere out there," said Nevada Sen. John Ensign, chairman of the Senate GOP's campaign effort. Added his House counterpart, Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole: "We haven't caught very many breaks."
Democrats are looking ahead to expanded power.
"Things are looking very good," said Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the head of the House Democrats' campaign committee. New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, chairman of the Senate Democrats' effort, predicted: "We're going to pick up a large number of seats, and that's going to make Democrats very happy."
The Democrats are reaching for a 60-vote Senate majority that would allow the party to overcome Republican filibusters, and could pick up two dozen or more House seats. Democrats also hope to pad their slim majority of governorships and increase their ranks in what already is their strongest majority in state legislatures in more than a decade.
The implications are far-reaching: Governors and state legislators elected Tuesday to four-year terms will help preside over the redrawing of legislative and congressional districts following the 2010 Census. The party in charge can redraw districts in its favor.
Atop the ticket, Obama leads in national and key battleground state polling, though the race appears to be tightening as it plays out primarily in states that Bush won twice. Among the unknowns: the choices of one in seven likely voters who are undecided or could still change their minds; the impact of Obama's efforts to register and woo new voters, particularly blacks and young people; the effect of Obama's race on voters just four decades after the tumult of the Civil Rights movement.
"Right now, it's very clearly Obama's to lose, and I think his chances of doing so are pretty minimal," said Republican Dick Armey, the former House majority leader from Texas. He said the possibility of a McCain comeback is "getting down to slim-to-none."
An Obama victory would amount to a wholesale rejection of the status quo: voters taking a chance on a relative newcomer to the national stage, a 47-year-old first-term senator from Chicago, rather than stick with a seasoned veteran of the party in power. With strengthened Democratic majorities in Congress, he'd have to deal with the party's left flank while governing a country that's more conservative than liberal.
The Republican Party essentially would be in tatters, searching for both a leader and an identity.
An Obama loss - or McCain comeback - would be a crushing disappointment for Democrats in a year tailor-made for the party. It would suggest McCain's experience trumped Obama's clarion call for change, and raise troubling questions about white Americans' willingness to vote for a black man.
Blacks, in particular, might be furious and deeply suspicious of an almost sure thing that slipped away.
Tuesday's election caps a nearly two-year campaign unprecedented in many ways, merely unusual in others.
"The candidates are more interesting. The media is bigger. The technology is better. Participation has increased dramatically," said Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator from Nebraska who once aspired to the presidency himself. "This is the first global campaign that the United States has had. People will always remember this as an extremely important election."
From the start, the race was different: It was the first since 1928 in which neither a president nor a vice president competed.
The Democratic primary was excruciatingly long, with historic and improbable characters: Obama, a black upstart Illinois senator, against a former first lady turned New York senator, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
McCain, at 72 once the GOP's most vocal scold, early on was the favorite for the Republican nomination. His campaign all but imploded, then he came back to overcome multiple opponents and win the party's nomination. He chose the first woman for the national GOP ticket, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Racism, sexism and ageism all colored the campaign, to varying degrees.
Interest appeared exceptionally high across the globe, particularly in Obama. More than 200,000 people turned out to attend an Obama speech in Berlin when he made a trip abroad to bolster his foreign policy credentials. His U.S. crowds also were gargantuan; 75,000 in Portland, Ore., before he was the nominee, more than 100,000 in Denver just a week before the general election.
An estimated 42.4 million people tuned in to watch Obama and McCain accept their parties' nominations.
More voters cast ballots before Election Day than ever before. As of Saturday night, there were some 27 million absentee and early votes in 30 states. Democrats outnumbered Republicans in pre-Election Day voting in key states.
Fundraising and spending were off the charts, too.
McCain and Obama amassed $1 billion combined over the course of their candidacies.
Obama reversed a previous pledge to stay in the public financing system for the general election if his opponent did. Thus, he became the first to reject taxpayer money, raising $641 million from a breathtaking 3.2 million donors. That dealt what's almost certain to be a fatal blow to the post-Watergate-era system for presidential campaigns. McCain, for his part, collected more than $250 million in contributions, and accepted $84 million in public funds.
Obama took the next step after Howard Dean's embrace of the Internet in 2004, creating a remarkable cyber-networking tool that brought in legions of new voters.
He expanded the Electoral College playing field by pouring advertising and manpower into Republican bastions like Indiana and North Carolina.
Beyond any previous year, the Internet amplified the feeding frenzy nature of the media and gave campaigns new tools, including YouTube videos, partisan and nonpartisan blogs, and social networking sites like Facebook.
Both campaigns also got burned and, as a result, curtailed the candidates' non-scripted interactions with reporters. Authenticity and spontaneity were sacrificed.
No matter how the presidential race plays out, Democrats are poised for gains in the 100-seat Senate. They currently have the barest of majorities 51 seats under their control, including two occupied by independents. Several pickups are likely, even if Democrats fall short of getting the magic 60 needed to stop filibusters.
Democrats are overwhelmingly favored to pick up GOP-held seats in Virginia, New Mexico and Colorado, where Republicans are retiring. And many Republican incumbents running for re-election are in difficult races, including Ted Stevens of Alaska, convicted this past week on seven corruption counts.
No Democratic seats appear in jeopardy.
Democrats, with a 235-199 majority and one vacancy, are expected to add at least 20 seats. They hope Obama's coattails give them a 35-seat gain or more. It would be the first time in more than 50 years that a party saw large waves of victories that boosted their congressional margins in back-to-back elections. All 435 seats are up for election.
Many Republican incumbents are endangered, and open GOP seats are at risk in Arizona, Illinois, Maryland, Ohio, Virginia, and two each in New Mexico and New York.
Democratic Rep. Tim Mahoney of Florida, under investigation after admitting to adulterous affairs, is in trouble, and Democratic Rep. John P. Murtha is in a fight after calling voters in his Pennsylvania district "racist."
Chief executives in 11 states are on the ballot. Democrats hope to boost their 28-22 majority.
The GOP's best chances for gains are in Washington and North Carolina.
Washington's Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire and GOP challenger Dino Rossi are in a repeat battle of 2004, when Gregoire won by 133 votes after two recounts and a lawsuit. In North Carolina, Republican Pat McCrory, the Charlotte mayor, is in a dead heat with Democratic Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue to replace term-limited Democratic Gov. Mike Easley.
Democrats expect to gain a seat in Missouri, where Attorney General Jay Nixon leads GOP Rep. Kenny Hulshof. Republican Gov. Matt Blunt is leaving office.
Voters also will choose 5,824 lawmakers across 44 states.
With their strongest majority in more than a decade, Democrats hold nearly 55 percent of all legislative seats and control the legislatures in 23 states; Republicans dominate in 14 states. Twelve states are split, and Nebraska is nonpartisan.
The election could determine the control of legislatures in several states. The biggest prize may be New York, where Democrats are two seats from taking the Senate majority. They already control the House and the governorship.
Pennsylvania Republicans need a one-seat gain to take back the House, while Indiana Republicans need two. In Nevada, Democrats are one seat away from a Senate majority.
Some 153 initiatives are on the ballots in 36 states.
Voters will weigh constitutional amendments that would ban same-sex marriage in California, Florida and Arizona.
An amendment in South Dakota would ban abortion except in cases of rape, incest and a serious health threat to the mother; another in Colorado would define human life as beginning at fertilization.
Initiatives in Colorado and Nebraska would ban race- and gender-based affirmative action. Washington voters will decide whether to offer terminally ill people the option of physician-assisted suicide.
A North Dakota initiative would cut the state income tax rate by 50 percent for individuals and 15 percent for corporations. A measure in Massachusetts would repeal the income tax altogether.
Associated Press writers Jim Kuhnhenn, Tom Raum and Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Washington, David Crary and Robert Tanner in New York, and Andrew Welsh-Huggins in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.