Americans opened the voting in their historic election on Tuesday, with front-running Democrat Barack Obama seeking to become the first black president and his Republican rival John McCain hoping for a poll-defying comeback.
A voter shows the peace sign above a badge backing Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama in Manassas, Virginia. Americans are voting in an election of rare historic potential, with front runner Obama seeking to become the first black president and Republican John McCain hoping for a poll-defying comeback.(AFP/Getty Images/Joe Raedle)
After an epic campaign , voters could also spark a political realignment in Washington, with Democrats targeting big gains in the Senate and House of Representatives after eight turbulent years under President George W. Bush.
Polls opened in the northeastern state of Vermont at 5:00 am (1000 GMT), an electoral official at a polling station in the town of Bennington told AFP by telephone.
History's longest, most costly White House campaign ended with Obama the hot favorite, enjoying wide leads in national polls and the edge in a string of battleground states which could swing the election either way.
In the eye of the worst financial storm since the 1930s and with US troops embroiled in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, both Obama and McCain have vowed to restore the frayed self-confidence of the world's lone superpower.
Obama and McCain were chasing the 270 electoral votes needed across the diverse state-by-state electoral map to take the White House. More than 100 million people are expected to trek to the polls to add to 30 million advance votes already cast.
First results were not expected until 7:00 pm eastern time (midnight GMT).
Obama and McCain, one of whom will become the first sitting senator elected president since John F. Kennedy in 1960, careened to the finish line on Monday, with competing cross-country campaign blitzes.
"We are one day away from changing the United States of America," Obama, 47, said in Florida, before heading off to whip up crowds in North Carolina and Virginia, hoping to squeeze his rival on normally Republican territory.
But McCain was defiant, vowing to confound pollsters and pundits and overcome a treacherous political map which has him struggling to cling to Republican bastions and on which one big loss could make Obama president.
"The Mac is back!" he roared at his campaign stops, promising a stunning act of political escapology that would confound almost every major opinion poll.
The Republican nominee raced through Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Indiana, New Mexico and Nevada before heading home to Arizona for election day.
"Seven states today and the enthusiasm and the momentum we've received, we're going to win," McCain told a crowd back in Arizona after his epic slog .
McCain had planned to ease off the pedal on Tuesday's election day but then scheduled an 11th-hour get-out-the-vote campaign in New Mexico and Colorado, two traditionally Republican states which are under threat from Obama.
Senator Obama , the son of a Kenyan father and white mother from Kansas, would become the first African American president, after a stunning rise to the pinnacle of US politics -- he was not even a US senator four years ago.
In a sad turn of events on Monday, Obama learned that Madelyn Dunham , the white grandmother who brought him up, had died in his native Hawaii from cancer, aged 86.
Obama built a huge grass roots political movement which he hopes will drive millions of first time voters to the polls and stifle McCain's comeback hopes.
He promises to alleviate the economic pinch for the middle class and repair ties with US allies, open talks with foes such as Iran and Cuba, bring troops home from Iraq and refocus on the Afghan war.
McCain, leveraging his heroism as a Vietnam war prisoner and decades of experience in Washington, would be the oldest president -- at 72 -- inaugurated for a first term if elected.
He has lambasted Obama for "socialist" tax policies , and argues his rival is unprepared for an age of global turmoil.
McCain has attacked Bush's policies on climate change and savaged the early conduct of the Iraq war, but the Democrat has saddled him with Bush's unpopular legacy.
With polls showing 90 percent of voters believe the United States is on the wrong track, Obama should be a lock for victory -- but whether his race or perceived lack of experience could give voters pause is an intangible.
McCain aides dispute poll numbers favoring Obama, and point to a late tightening of surveys in key states to argue he can still win.
A Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll put Obama ahead 51 percent to 43. A Washington Post-ABC News poll said the race was so far Obama's by 54 percent to 43, and Rasmussen had him up 51 percent to McCain's 46.
The final Gallup Daily tracking poll before the election day said Obama was leading the race 53 percent to 42 percent. A CNN poll published just hours before voting started gave Obama a narrower seven-point lead, 51 to 44 percent.
The Democrat has an easier path to the 270 electoral votes and has a small but solid lead in many of the battleground states needed to win the White House. He may have built an advantage as millions of Americans voted early.