US election much too close to call
Doubts remain in both camps as an exhausting campaign ends and the moment of truth nears
Ignore the choreographed bonhomie and canned gravitas on stage as President Barack Obama and his Republican rival Mitt Romney launch their final rallies - the 2012 race for the White House is coming down to a desperate, gritty fight to the finish.
While Romney and Obama have shouted themselves hoarse as they dash across the swing states such as Ohio, New Hampshire, Florida, Wisconsin and Virginia before polls open today, their campaign workers speak of near-exhaustion - and fears the race is simply too close to call.
Voters in key counties within the 11 or so crucial states also talk of exhaustion - at the blitzkrieg of late advertising, door knocks and meal-time phone calls.
It is not just that national popularity polls suggest a near dead-lock, it is lingering doubts about each candidate. Republicans ponder the thwarting of Romney's late surge while Democrats acknowledge question marks over the true strength and depth of Obama's support after four tough years. Today will tell.
Officially at least, Obama's core advisers such as David Axelrod, the architect of his stunning political rise from the Illinois state senate, are expressing confidence in polls showing an edge in the crucial Electoral College.
On the ground it is a slightly different story. For all the star-power of Obama's recent rallies - singers Stevie Wonder, Katy Perry and Bruce Springsteen have all been pressed into service - the crowds are smaller and passion notably weaker compared to the dramatic scenes of 2008. Then Obama could move supporters to tears as he closed in on the prospect of an historic victory.
"To be honest, it's really tough this time," said Hung Nguyen, a key Asian-American organiser in Virginia, yesterday. "I really don't want to call it, not in northern Virginia [an important Asian vote hub] and not in Virginia."
Obama turned the storied southern state last time - the first time a Democratic presidential candidate had won there since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
"Last time around it was hard, too, but there was an energy out there. We had to work ... to convince people to get rid of their prejudices against voting for an African-American," said Nguyen. "This time we're confronting deep emotional polarisation - some people are just not going to vote for Obama again."
Also worrying for Democratic activists are soundings that suggest the youth vote - dramatically harnessed by Obama four years ago - is once again proving fickle.
A Harvard Public Opinion Project forecast suggests turnout of voters under 30 will range from 34 to 40 per cent - well below the 51 per cent in 2008.
Obama has been repeatedly teaming up with former president Bill Clinton in the final stretch - moves which energise Obama's base. Giving Clinton plenty of face, Obama even bounds on to stages to the tune used by Clinton during his two successful campaigns - Fleetwood Mac's Don't Stop.
Such shows of unity - Clinton and Obama have never appeared so friendly in the past - have yet to be replicated on the Republican side. Former president George W. Bush remains conspicuous by his absence - a reminder that he and his vice-president, Dick Cheney, are simply not vote winners.
Question marks, too, are intensifying over how the handling of Hurricane Sandy has halted Romney's march up the polls.
Romney backers are criticising the passion with which Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie embraced Obama as the pair headed recovery efforts. Republican strategist Karl Rove even revised a prediction last week that Romney would win comfortably.
Christie has lashed out at such questions, saying they show everything that is wrong about the deepening US political divide. Democratic activists insist it shows the hunt for scapegoats has begun among their rivals.
Romney is showing no such wariness on stage, however. His closing speeches are marked by lofty presidential appeals for bipartisanship and vision - with a touch of Obama 2008 to boot.
"I will lead America to a better place," he said. "Where confidence in the future is assured, not questioned," he added, before talking about hope and change - Obama's old calling cards.
The usually aloof Obama, meanwhile, is showing plenty of fight. He warned crowds in Ohio that he was not interested in "cutting deals" for peace in Washington if it meant cuts to student aid or more power for health insurance firms over consumers.
"I am a long ways from giving up this fight," he said - with some supporters struck by his sudden rage. It is, they note, his last electoral battle.