Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney swapped hard-fought battleground states Tuesday night in a tense duel for the White House shadowed by a weak economy and high unemployment that crimped the middle class dreams of millions.
Obama won New Hampshire, and Romney put North Carolina in his column, the first two of nine battleground states to fall.
The rest of the pivotal states were anything but settled — Ohio, Virginia and Florida among them — with long lines in some locations hours after poll-close time. Romney led in the national popular vote with 40 million votes, or 50 percent. Obama had 34.4 million, or 48 percent, with half of the precincts tallied.
But Obama led in the competition for electoral votes, where it mattered most. He led 234-200, with 270 required for victory.
The economy was rated the top issue by about 60 percent of voters surveyed as they left their polling places. But more said former President George W. Bush bore responsibility for current circumstances than Obama did after nearly four years in office.
About 4 in 10 said the economy is on the mend, but more than that said it was stagnant or getting worse more than four years after the near-collapse of 2008. The survey was conducted for The Associated Press and a group of television networks.
Democrats got off to a quick start in their bid to renew their Senate majority, capturing seats in Indiana and Massachusetts now in Republican hands.
In Maine, independent former Gov. Angus King was elected to succeed retiring GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe. He has not yet said which party he will side with, but Republicans attacked him in television advertising during the race, and Democrats rushed to his cause.
Polls were still open in much of the country as the two rivals began claiming the spoils of a brawl of an election in a year in which the struggling economy put a crimp in the middle class dreams of millions.
The president was in Chicago as he awaited the voters' verdict on his four years in office. He told reporters he had a concession speech as well as victory remarks prepared. He congratulated Romney on a spirited campaign. "I know his supporters are just as engaged, just as enthusiastic and working just as hard today" as Obama's own, he added.
Romney reciprocated, congratulating the man who he had campaigned against for more than a year.
Earlier, he raced to Ohio and Pennsylvania for Election Day campaigning and projected confidence as he flew home to Massachusetts. "We fought to the very end, and I think that's why we'll be successful," he said, adding that he had finished writing a speech anticipating victory but nothing if the election went to his rival.
But the mood soured among the Republican high command as the votes came in and Obama ground out a lead in critical states.
Like Obama, Vice President Joe Biden was in Chicago as he waited to find out if he was in line for a second term. Republican running mate Paul Ryan was with Romney in Boston, although he kept one eye on his re-election campaign for a House seat in Wisconsin, just in case.
Voters also chose a new Congress to serve alongside the man who will be inaugurated president in January, Democrats defending their majority in the Senate, and Republicans in the House.
The long campaign's cost soared into the billions, much of it spent on negative ads, some harshly so.
In the presidential race, an estimated one million commercials aired in nine battleground states where the rival camps agreed the election was most likely to be settled — Ohio, New Hampshire, Virginia, Florida, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Iowa, Colorado and Nevada.
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