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WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama moved ahead Tuesday night in the race for the White House, rolling up victory margins in the reliably Democratic Northeast and at home in Illinois. Republican Mitt Romney secured his conservative base in an election season shadowed by a weak economy and high unemployment.
Romney led in the popular vote, gaining 51 percent to the president's 47 percent with 1 percent of the precincts reporting. But the early-deciding states gave Obama 64 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House, to 40 for Romney.
The polls were still open in most of the battleground states — Ohio, Wisconsin, Virginia and Florida among them — 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.
Obama carried Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont and Romney's home state of Massachusetts. Also as expected, he won Delaware and Maryland as well as the District of Columbia and Illinois.
Romney had South Carolina, Oklahoma, Kentucky and West Virginia in his column. He also won Indiana, a state Obama carried in 2008 but did not contest this year.
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.
Eleven states picked governors.
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 bears responsibility for current circumstances than Obama does 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. The survey was conducted for The Associated Press and a group of television networks.
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.
In a months-long ad war that cost nearly $1 billion total, Romney and Republican groups spent more than $550 million and Obama and his allies $381 million, according to organizations that track advertising.
In Virginia, the polls had been closed for several minutes when Obama's campaign texted a call for volunteers "to make sure everyone who's still in line gets to vote."
Romney raced to Ohio and Pennsylvania for Election Day campaigning and projected confidence as he flew home to Massachusetts to await the results. "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.
Obama made get-out-the-vote calls from a campaign office near his home in Chicago and found time for his traditional Election Day basketball game with friends. Addressing his rival, he said, "I also want to say to Gov. Romney, 'Congratulations on a spirited campaign.' I know his supporters are just as engaged, just as enthusiastic and working just as hard today." Romney, in turn, congratulated the president for running a "strong campaign."
According to the exit poll, 52 percent of voters said Obama is more in touch with people like them, compared to 44 percent for Romney.
About 60 percent said taxes should be increased, taking sides on an issue that divided the president and Romney. Obama wants to let taxes rise on upper incomes, while Romney does not.
Other than the battlegrounds, big states were virtually ignored in the final months of the campaign. Romney wrote off New York, Illinois and California, while Obama made no attempt to carry Texas, much of the South or the Rocky Mountain region other than Colorado.
There were 33 Senate seats on the ballot, 23 of them defended by Democrats and the rest by Republicans.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who sides with the Democrats, won a new term easily.
The GOP needed a gain of three for a majority if Romney won, and four if Obama was re-elected. Neither Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada nor GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky was on the ballot, but each had high stakes in the outcome.
All 435 House seats were on the ballot, including five where one lawmaker ran against another as a result of once-a-decade redistricting to take population shifts into account. Democrats needed to pick up 25 seats to gain the majority they lost two years ago.
Depending on the outcome of a few races, it was possible that white men would wind up in a minority in the Democratic caucus for the first time.
Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, raised millions to finance get-out-the-vote operations in states without a robust presidential campaign, New York, Illinois and California among them. His goal was to minimize any losses, or possibly even gain ground, no matter Romney's fate. House Democratic leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California campaigned aggressively, as well, and faced an uncertain political future if her party failed to win control.
In gubernatorial races, Republicans hoped to gain seats after Democratic retirements in New Hampshire, Washington, Montana and especially North Carolina.
Romney was in Massachusetts after his Election Day dash to Ohio and Pennsylvania.
In a campaign that traversed contested Republican primaries last winter and spring, a pair of political conventions this summer and three presidential debates, Obama, Romney, Vice President Joe Biden and Republican running mate Paul Ryan spoke at hundreds of rallies, were serenaded by Bruce Springstein and Meat Loaf and washed down hamburgers, pizza, barbecue and burrito bowls.
Obama was elected the first black president in 2008, and four years later, Romney became the first Mormon to appear on a general election ballot. Yet one man's race and the other's religion were never major factors in this year's campaign for the White House, a race dominated from the outset by the economy.
Over and over, Obama said that during his term the nation has begun to recover from the worst recession since the Great Depression. While he conceded progress has been slow, he accused Romney of offering recycled Republican policies that have helped the wealthy and harmed the middle class in the past and would do so again.
Romney countered that a second Obama term could mean a repeat recession in a country where economic growth has been weak and unemployment is worse now than when the president was inaugurated. A wealthy former businessman, he claimed the knowledge and the skills to put in place policies that would make the economy healthy again.
In a race where the two men disagreed often, one of the principal fault lines was over taxes. Obama campaigned for the renewal of income tax cuts set to expire on Dec. 31 at all income levels except above $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for couples.
Romney said no one's taxes should go up in uncertain economic times. In addition, he proposed a 20 percent cut across the board in income tax rates but said he would end or curtail a variety of tax breaks to make sure federal deficits didn't rise.
The differences over taxes, the economy, Medicare, abortion and more were expressed in intensely negative advertising.
Obama launched first, shortly after Romney dispatched his Republican foes in his quest for the party nomination.
One memorable commercial showed Romney singing an off-key rendition of "America The Beautiful." Pictures and signs scrolled by saying that his companies had shipped jobs to Mexico and China, that Massachusetts state jobs had gone to India while he was governor and that he has personal investments in Switzerland, Bermuda and the Cayman Islands.
Romney spent less on advertising than Obama. A collection of outside groups made up the difference, some of them operating under rules that allowed donors to remain anonymous. Most of the ads were of the attack variety. But the Republican National Committee relied on one that had a far softer touch, and seemed aimed at voters who had been drawn to the excitement caused by Obama's first campaign. It referred to a growing national debt and unemployment, then said, "He tried. You tried. It's OK to make a change."
More than 30 million voters cast early ballots in nearly three dozen states, a reflection of the growing appeal of a relatively new phenomenon.