WASHINGTON -- The White House, the Senate, the tea party revolution in the House and 11 governorships are on the line Tuesday in a fantastically costly, relentlessly negative election played out in unsettled economic times.
There is more at stake, though -- the future of "Obamacare," the fate of Medicare, too -- in a land where the campaign tab is counted in the billions of dollars, where voters have been polled to the point of rebelliousness, and where a 4-year-old approached national hero status when she tearily protested the onslaught of campaign advertising.
"I'm tired of Bronco Bamma and Mitt Romney," sobbed Abby Evans, of Fort Collins, Colo., in a video that went viral in the campaign's final, frantic days.
And why not? The rhetoric was cringe-inducing.
Democrats accused Romney of a "war on women." Romney said President Barack Obama was waging a "war on coal."
Plunging through a final weekend of campaigning, the two rivals honed their appeals as they flew from one battleground state to another.
"You want to know that your president means what he says and says what he means," Obama told a crowd of 4,000 on Saturday in northeast Ohio, a reference to Romney's late campaign commercials incorrectly suggesting that Jeep was creating jobs in China at the expense of domestic workers. "And after four years as president, you know me."
Romney and his supporters projected confidence in Dubuque, Iowa. "Three more days,"
Apart from the candidates, divided government -- perhaps a politically correct term for dysfunctional government -- is on the ballot after a two-year stretch that produced gridlock on many issues and record-low congressional approval ratings.
A victory by Obama, a Democrat, would ensure the survival of the health care law that Republicans oppose so strongly, even if they win contested control of the Senate and, as expected, hold the House.
A triumph by Republican challenger Romney would slam the door on tax increases on the wealthy, even if Democrats demand them as the price for a deficit deal that includes curtailing the costs of programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
As well, the winner could wind up appointing one or more new justices to the Supreme Court, where four justices are older than 70. The potential exists to alter the balance of a tribunal that recently has issued 5-4 rulings on abortion, affirmative action, campaign finance and religion in public life.
The economy has trumped all other issues in a campaign carried out in the shadow of slow growth, high unemployment and huge federal deficits. Heading into the race's final weekend, the government reported that 171,000 jobs were created in October. Unemployment ticked up to 7.9 percent.
"The question of this election is, 'Do you want four years of the same or do you want real change?' " Romney asked an audience Friday in West Allis, Wis. He said, correctly, that unemployment is higher than when Obama took office, and he contended that the president would fail to improve the economy with a second term. "Four more days," his supporters chanted.
Obama countered that more than 5 million jobs have been created since the depths of the Great Recession. He ended the campaign as he began it, insisting the election wasn't a referendum on his performance in office, but a choice between him and his rival. It's "between going back to the top-down policies that crashed our economy or adapting the kinds of policies that will make sure we've got a strong and growing middle class," the incumbent said Friday in Hilliard, Ohio.
Going into the final weekend of the campaign, polls showed a race for the popular vote so close that only a statistically insignificant point or two separated the two rivals. Soundings in the nine battleground states tightened after Obama's poor performance in the first debate, on Oct. 3, and stayed that way.
Yet Republicans quietly acknowledged that Romney had so far been unable to achieve the breakthroughs needed in Ohio and Wisconsin.
Looking elsewhere for electoral votes, Romney and his allies sought to expand the political map into Pennsylvania and, to a lesser extent, Minnesota and Michigan. Obama's aides expressed confidence about all three, although some private Democratic polls showed relatively close contests and the two sides engaged in a late advertising war.
Not counting those three states, Obama appeared certain to carry 15 states and the District of Columbia, accounting for 191 of the 270 electoral votes required for victory.
Romney was similarly secure in 23 states, also for 191 electoral votes.
The other nine states have seen much of the campaigning by the two men and their running mates, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., for Romney and Vice President Joe Biden for Obama. They were also the targets of most of the nearly $1 billion in television advertising financed by the candidates and their allies, both named and anonymous.
The nine battleground states account for 110 electoral votes combined, and include areas with particularly high joblessness (Nevada and North Carolina) as well as low unemployment (Iowa, New Hampshire and Virginia). The battleground states also have large Latino populations (Colorado and Florida), an economy heavily dependent on the auto industry (Ohio) and the home of Romney's running mate (Wisconsin).
They reflect many of the key differences that have defined the presidential struggle. Among them are the competing visions of economic policy, the disagreement over raising taxes on upper-income Americans, the 2009 auto bailout that Obama said saved an industry but Romney opposed, and immigration, where the Republican sought to move to the middle after calling during the primaries on illegal immigrants to self-deport.
The Senate races feature all that -- and more.
Republicans must gain three in the Senate for a majority if Romney wins the White House, otherwise four. There are 33 seats on the ballot, 23 currently in Democratic hands and 10 in Republican, a lopsided split that for months made the GOP favored to capture control.
But a series of unexpected turns, including Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe's retirement in Maine, Missouri Rep. Todd Akin's remark that women's bodies have a way of preventing pregnancy after "legitimate rape," and tea party-backed state Treasurer Richard Mourdock's primary victory over veteran Republican Sen. Richard Lugar in Indiana have all complicated the party's task.
Now, strategists in both parties rate Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill the favorite for a new term in Missouri. Independent former Gov. Angus King appears to hold an advantage over major party rivals in Maine, where Democrats sought to blunt GOP attacks.