The presidential race of 2004 lumbered into history as the longest and the costliest, a wartime election with a nail-biter of a finish and a bitter residue of political division and polarization.
The country was split down the middle between President George W. Bush and Democratic challenger Senator John Kerry, and the nation's politics were so polarized that it seemed unlikely the winner would find common ground with opponents anytime soon.
Regardless of the outcome, half of the country was sure to be unhappy.
Troublesome for Bush, a majority of Americans were unhappy about the war in Iraq and the shape of the economy, according to Associated Press exit polls. Nine out of 10 were worried about the availability and cost of health care. Three-fourths said they worried about another major terrorist attack, and they split their votes between Bush and Kerry.
A surge in voter registration and the biggest voter mobilization campaign ever added uncertainty.
There were many ways to describe the presidential contest. It was a competition of two men of wealth and privilege, both graduates of Yale University and members of the same secret society, Skull and Bones.
It was the first White House election since the nation was shaken by its worst-ever terrorist attack, the first since the American-led invasion of Iraq, and the first in wartime since the Vietnam war.
Osama bin Laden edged into the race with a videotaped appearance that reminded Americans of the Sept. 11 attacks. More than half of voters said the bin Laden tape was important in their vote, and they tended to support Kerry.
Iraq towered over the election with grisly scenes of beheadings, bombings and massacres, reminding Americans of the steep price of war. The nation has lost more than 1,100 troops in Iraq, and voters were split on whether the US should have invaded in the first place and wondered how to get out.
While incumbents often delegate negative campaigning to their vice presidents, Bush did not shrink from the task, branding Kerry weak and indecisive and the kind of leader who would put the nation at risk.
"This president has been the bad cop in chief," said Norman Ornstein, a well-known political analyst. He described the race as "the nastiest in our lifetimes. It doesn't maybe equal the 19th century but it's hard to watch this without getting an upset stomach if you care about politics."
In terms of policy, the two candidates offered some of the sharpest differences in many years on issues such as taxes, health care, Social Security, abortion, gay marriage, gun control, embryonic stem cell research, energy, the environment, the US' place in the world and its need for allies in Iraq.
In Congress, Democrats and Republicans regarded each other with suspicion and hostility. Bush fueled the partisanship by refusing to compromise with Democrats on issues from taxes to judicial appointments.