Americans voted today in an election of rare historic stakes, with the front-running Democrat candidate Barack Obama seeking to become the first black US president and his defiant Republican rival John McCain battling for a comeback. After an epic campaign, a political realignment in Washington was also in prospect, with Democrats targeting big gains in the Senate and House of Representatives after eight turbulent years under President George W Bush. Voting opened at 5.00am, an election official said by telephone from a polling station in Bennington in the north-eastern state of Vermont, the first to open its booths statewide on polling day. Other states were to follow over the morning.
History's longest, most costly White House campaign ended with Senator Obama the hot favourite, 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 candidates have vowed to restore the frayed self-confidence of the world's lone superpower. Mr Obama and Mr 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.
Mr Obama and Mr McCain, one of whom will become the first sitting senator elected president since John F Kennedy in 1960, hit the finish line on Monday with competing cross-country campaign blitzes. Mr Obama, 47, told voters they were close to "changing the United States of America," speaking in Florida before heading off to whip up crowds in North Carolina and Virginia, hoping to squeeze his rival on normally Republican territory. But Mr 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 Mr 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. "The enthusiasm and the momentum we've received, we're going to win," McCain told a crowd back in Arizona after his epic slog.