President Barack Obama won a second term Tuesday, defeating Republican Mitt Romney after a long and bitter campaign that revolved around questions of how to accelerate the economy and the proper scope of government.
Obama swept Ohio and the other battleground states, accumulating a solid majority of at least 303 electoral votes despite the nation's sluggish growth, high unemployment and partisan gridlock in Washington.
Obama held a slight lead in the national popular vote as of early Wednesday morning. Shortly before 1 a.m., Romney called Obama to concede.
In the last week of the campaign, Romney and GOP allies made a dramatic push for Pennsylvania, putting $11 million worth of ads on television, but Obama carried the state handily, along with New Jersey.
Obama won in large part by reassembling his coalition of young and minority voters. He had a huge advantage with Hispanics, the nation's fastest growing ethnic group, which was crucial to his winning Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado.
It was fitting that Ohio, the most heavily targeted of the electoral battleground states, put the president over the top.
Four years after his historic election as the first African American president on a message of hope and change, Obama faces daunting challenges, including a $16 trillion national debt and uncontrolled growth in the costs of Social Security and Medicare.
The partisan makeup of Congress was projected to stay the same, with Republicans controlling the House and Democrats the Senate. Already, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R., Ohio) said his caucus would not support a tax increase as part of any deal to close a $1 trillion deficit.
The results of the election will shape the nation's course in an age of austerity at home and peril abroad, between limiting the reach of the federal government and cutting expensive entitlements, or maintaining a safety net and spending more to stimulate the economy and bolster the middle class.
Romney and Obama had competing visions on taxes, federal spending, health care and foreign policy, notably how to respond to Iran's nuclear ambitions and what to do about the rising power of China.
Obama was fighting to avoid becoming the third incumbent in the past three decades to be denied a second term. Democrat Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan in 1980, and Republican George H.W. Bush was defeated by Bill Clinton in 1992.
For all the sharp differences between Obama and Romney on broad principles, both of them were often vague on the details of their policy proposals.
Romney called for cutting income tax rates by 20 percent across the board and said he would offset the cost by eliminating tax breaks, but failed to specify which ones, as nonpartisan think tanks questioned the validity of his math. He also proposed overhauling the Medicare system so that, within a decade, beneficiaries under age 55 would receive a fixed amount of money from the government with which to buy either private health insurance or public Medicare-like coverage. But Romney declined to explain in detail how the new plan would work.
For his part, Obama never unveiled a detailed agenda for a second term, except to say that he would stop the harm to the middle class that he argued would come from Romney's approach, and promising, in general, to finish work left undone from his first four years.
During the campaign Obama said he wanted to overhaul immigration laws to provide a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants, though he had failed to introduce legislation to do so in the first term. Obama also said he would spend more money on education and continue to invest in the development of alternative energy.
With a weak economy, and an unemployment rate approaching 8 percent, Obama began the election season in danger, his job-approval ratings well below 50 percent. After all, no incumbent since FDR had been reelected with unemployment higher than 7.2 percent.
So Obama and his team of strategists turned to making Romney unacceptable. They zeroed in on his record as founder and chief executive of the private-equity firm Bain Capital, attacking him in an early barrage of attack ads in battleground states as a vulture capitalist who profited from buying companies to drain them of their assets, lay off workers, and ship jobs overseas.
The image seemed to sink in, and it looked in September as if Obama was pulling away after a series of Romney missteps, including a video showing the Republican at a swank fund-raiser dismissing the 47 percent of the electorate that does not pay income tax as moochers with a victim mentality.
Then the game-changer: the first presidential debate Oct. 3 in Denver, when Romney offered a forceful critique of the president's record and blunted some of his more conservative positions as Obama stood by, listless. Romney began a slow and steady rise in the polls, nationally and in swing states.
In recent days, Obama stopped the erosion in his support as he led the federal response to super-storm Sandy in the Northeast. The storm consumed news coverage for a week, blotting out Romney and his message.
Exit polls found, not surprisingly, that the top issue on the minds of voters was the economy. While three-quarters of voters rated the national economy as "not so good" or poor, 3 in 10 said it was getting worse, while 4 in 10 said things were improving. Half of voters said former President George W. Bush was more to blame for current economic problems, while 4 in 10 said Obama was more responsible.
Fifty-one percent of voters in early exit polls said Romney would better handle the economy, while 47 chose Obama.
And yet those polls also seemed to ratify Obama's strategy of stressing class differences. Forty-three percent of those surveyed after voting said Obama's policies favor the middle class, compared with 10 percent who said they favor the rich and 31 percent who said they favor the poor.
As for Romney, 52 percent said he'd favor the wealthy with his policies, compared with 36 percent who said the middle class and 2 percent who said he'd tilt toward the poor.
Wendy Brockett, 51, a married mother of two from Doylestown Township in the swing county of Bucks, voted for Obama Tuesday, as she did in 2008. She said she is unhappy with the economy, but felt the president had been "dealt a pretty bad hand."
She added, "Romney would be good for people earning good money. We have to have a strong middle class and I feel Obama's plan has a better chance of making that happen."
Ohio, the state that became pivotal to the outcome, was particularly fertile ground for Obama. He was able to remind voters that he had saved the auto industry with a federal bailout of Chrysler and GM, which he championed. Romney opposed the deal, which became a liability in a state where one in eight jobs depend on the auto industry. Exit polls of Ohio voters showed that 59 percent supported the bailout.
Recognizing the threat, Romney began airing controversial ads in Ohio that suggested Chrysler was planning to move jobs from its Jeep assembly plant in suburban Toledo to China -- which the auto company, its competitor, GM, and independent fact-checkers said was false.
Chrysler is planning to open a plant in China to sell Jeeps there, but said it was increasing jobs in Ohio.
"It clearly backfired," said Philadelphia-based Democratic consultant Daniel F. McElhatton. "When people can say, 'We know this isn't true because we live it,' then anything else Romney said becomes a lie."
Obama also benefited, exit polls said, from a sizable advantage among women. The president's reelection campaign stoked that gap as the race tightened by hammering Romney's opposition to abortion rights and vows to end federal funding for Planned Parenthood.
By Thomas Fitzgerald - The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT) Inquirer staff writers Jennifer Lin and Kristen Graham contributed to this article.
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