Voters set to deliver verdict after grueling presidential campaign

A grueling and combative presidential race comes to an end Tuesday when voters head to the polls to choose between President Obama and GOP rival Mitt Romney.

The race has been neck and neck for weeks, and hanging in the balance is not just who will be president for the next four years but the resolution to competing ideas about overhauling the tax code, federal budget and healthcare system.

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A win for Obama would ensure the implementation of his signature healthcare law and give Democrats leverage in the looming battle over the fiscal cliff. It would also signal that the public gave at least tacit approval of his handling of a battered economy still struggling to regain its footing four years after its dramatic collapse.

A victory for Romney, meanwhile, would send a signal that voters saw the president’s first term as a serious overreach and would irrevocably tarnish the legacy of the nation’s first African-American president. It would also empower Tea Party conservatives in Congress to implement dramatic changes to the federal budget, likely repealing the Affordable Care Act, lowering and flattening tax codes and imposing serious cuts to federal programs.

The candidates spent the final hours before the polls open in a mad dash to the finish line. The culmination of an intense 18-month stretch, Obama and Romney wrapped up a final dizzying day of back-to-back events with separate stops in the swing states that could put them over the top. 

The president spent Monday trying to solidify his Midwest “firewall,” stumping in Wisconsin, Ohio and Iowa, three states that will ensure his reelection on Tuesday.

He’ll spend Election Day in Chicago and continue his tradition of playing basketball, according to his campaign.

Romney, meanwhile, spent the day focused on the states he hopes will send him to the White House: Florida, Virginia, Ohio and New Hampshire. And the campaign announced the addition of more stops on Election Day, with the Republican nominee expected to travel back to Ohio and stop in Pennsylvania as voters cast their ballots.

While Republicans insisted Monday that the late additions to Romney’s schedule were meant to rally support in states where the Republican challenger saw the potential for big electoral-vote pickups, public polling suggests the move might be a Hail Mary pass for Romney, who will likely need to win one of the two states to remain competitive. According to RealClearPolitics averages of the states, the president is leading by 3 points in Ohio and 4 points in Pennsylvania.

But Election Day campaigning is not unprecedented. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) campaigned in New Mexico and Colorado when he opposed Obama four years ago. President George W. Bush visited Ohio in 2004, and then-candidate Obama visited Indiana in 2008, with the latter two candidates eventually winning states that had been closely contested leading up to Election Day.

And Romney remains within striking distance as national polls released Monday depicted a neck-and-neck race, with the president never posting commanding leads in his must-win states. Republicans argued in the campaign’s waning hours that undecided voters were most likely to break for Romney, although past polling suggests that piece of conventional wisdom has not always held true.

Losses for either side could inspire soul-searching within the parties. Democrats have argued throughout the election that their coalition of young, female and minority voters had grown to represent enough of the electorate to prevail. For Republicans, a loss could force a re-evaluation of their platform — especially on social issues and immigration.

But a Republican win could signal a new era of restricted federal spending and a full embrace of the small-government budgetary principles first extolled by Ronald Reagan. Romney has made the economy the centerpiece of his campaign, and Paul Ryan’s elevation to vice president would undoubtedly put his ambitious conservative budget at center stage in the debate over the looming fiscal cliff.

Both candidates focused on the economy as they made their final pitches to voters on Monday.

Obama continued to reiterate that the country has “made progress” over the last four years, but acknowledged that there is still “more work to do.”

In Madison, Wis., Obama said the Washington “status quo” is counting on his supporters being “so worn down, so fed up, so tired of all the squabbling, so tired of all the dysfunction, that you’re just going to give up and walk away and leave them ... right where they are, pulling the strings, pulling the levers and you locked out.”

“In other words, their bet is on cynicism,” he said. “But Wisconsin, my bet’s on you.”

Romney told a crowd in Florida’s critical I-4 corridor that Election Day will “begin a better tomorrow.”

He slammed Obama on his economic record and his struggles to work with congressional Republicans throughout his first term.

“Unemployment is higher now than it was when President Obama took office,” Romney said. “The president thinks more government is the answer. No, Mr. President, more jobs, that’s the answer for America.”

The Republican presidential nominee said that by contrast, he had a record of being able to implement “real change.” And he argued he and Ryan represented an attitude that was more friendly and encouraging toward business.

“For the first time in four years, every entrepreneur, every small-businessperson, every job creator is going to know the president of the United States likes them and likes the jobs they help bring to Americans,” Romney said.

Polling has shown the economy is the leading issue for voters in 2012, far surpassing any other social or domestic topic. By that metric, Tuesday will present a referendum on who best made the sale of his economic vision to the public — and likely shape the way he will be able to implement that plan in the coming four years.