Americans voted yesterday in one of the tightest presidential elections in decades after a long and often bitter campaign between Republican President George W. Bush and his Democratic rival Senator John Kerry.
After Bush and Kerry ended a frenzied final day of campaigning, during which their paths crossed at Milwaukee airport, the traditional first votes were cast in the New Hampshire hamlet of Dixville Notch just after midnight.
Some 156 million Americans were registered to vote as the first polling centers opened at 6am in the East and then across the rest of the country.
Opinion polls showed the race in a virtual dead heat. Five surveys gave Bush a statistically insignificant lead of one or two points while Fox News showed Kerry leading by two points and the American Research Group had a 48-48 percent tie.
But a CBS News poll confirmed earlier findings by the Gallup organization that Bush's support over the Massachusetts senator appeared to erode in the waning days of the campaign on his signature issue of national security.
The CBS survey, completed after the broadcast of a message from al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden on Friday, showed Bush's lead on who could best guard against terrorism dropping from 70 to 62 percent to 64 to 62 percent over the weekend.
A large turnout was forecast with Iraq and the war on terror dominating the campaign and the rest of the world also anxiously awaiting the outcome.
With the election so tight, fears were widespread that it could end up like the debacle in 2000, when a disputed recount in the state of Florida had to be settled by the US Supreme Court five weeks later.
With neither candidate able to build a decisive lead this year, the Republican and Democratic parties have each prepared 1 million volunteers to mobilize voters and thousands of lawyers for possible legal battles over contested results.
Bush went to six states and Kerry four on Monday as they battled for the hearts and minds of the undecided voters expected to decide the next occupant of the White House.
The campaign teams crossed paths at Milwaukee airport in Wisconsin. Kerry, who was arriving for a rally that went ahead in pouring rain, had to wait while Bush left on Air Force One.
"This is the choice, this is the moment of accountability for America, and it is the moment that the world is watching what you do," said Kerry, who has vowed to increase international involvement in Iraq and end tax cuts for America's wealthiest earners.
Bush's presidency was trans-formed by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and he has styled himself as the "war president." But the March 2003 invasion of Iraq has split the US and caused friction with its allies.
The 58-year-old president touted himself as tougher than Kerry on terrorism, closer to voters on loaded issues like abortion and gay marriage, and warned that Kerry would raise the taxes that Bush dramatically cut.
Bush and Kerry issued their final urgings to voters yesterday from the pages of the nationally distributed USA Today newspaper.
In twin commentaries, both titled "Why you should vote for me today," both candidates repeated their mantras and took parting shots at each others' perceived failings.
Hundreds of millions of campaign dollars and months of gloves-off TV attack ads have failed to reward either candidate with a breakout lead.