Voters culminate presidential campaign, swarm to polls

— -- Presidential contenders Barack Obama and John McCain joined millions of voters across the country in casting their ballots Tuesday then hit the campaign trail one last time to try to rally their supporters.

In an historic election that included the first African-American nominee of a major party and the first female nominee for vice president, lines began forming as early as 4 a.m. in many states.

Obama, the Democratic nominee, led in national polls and appeared to have the edge in key battleground states, but Republicans also expressed optimism that McCain, his GOP rival, could put together the 270 electoral votes needed to claim the presidency.

By tradition, the small New Hampshire community of Dixville Notch cast its ballots shortly after midnight and released the results: Obama 15, McCain 6.

Except for snow in the Rockies and Northwest and rain along the Mid-Atlanitc coast, weather did not appear to be a factor in voter turnout, which was heavy in some states.

In Columbus, Ohio, voting appeared to go smoothly, with most polling places experiencing short lines or no lines after an original burst of early morning voting.

Four years ago, the state suffered long voting lines on election day, forcing some voters to wait more than six hours to cast their ballot.

This year, at least 1.5 million of Ohio's 8 million voters took advantage of absentee voting that permitted casting ballots by mail or in-person at election offices. The state has also added thousands of new voting machines to reduce waiting.

"I'm worried as can be, but things have worked smoothly for the most part," said Denise Sinkfield, the election supervisor at a large polling station at the Driving Park Recreation Center.

In Raleigh, N.C., where voters turned out despite a steady rain, Jimmie Taylor, 52, a truck driver who was voting for the first time in the ten years, said the economy was his chief concern.

"People don't have jobs, and we need a change," Taylor said, adding that he also was drawn to Obama because of his eloquence. "He talks good, I like what he says."

In Tampa., Fla., Carol Clauss, 40, executive secretary, said she believes in McCain "and in his values."

"The big thing for me was that Obama doesn't have the experience. I wanted someone who has experience, who's been doing this for a while," she said.

Many votes have been cast for days. While the overall number of early votes was unknown, statistics showed more than 29 million ballots cast in 30 states and suggested an advantage for Obama.

Democrats voted in larger numbers than Republicans in North Carolina, Colorado, Florida and Iowa, all of which went for President Bush in 2004.

The Illinois senator, accompanied by his wife, Michelle, and their two daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, was the first of the two presidential hopefuls to vote. He marked a long paper ballot at Chicago's Beulah Shoesmith Elementary School as his daughters looked on.

"I feel great and it was fun, I had a chance to vote with my daughters," Obama said afterward. "I feel really good."

Asked if he was feeling sentimental, Obama replied: "You know I'm sure I will tonight —that's when polls close."

"The journey ends but voting with my daughters, that was a big deal," he added. "I noticed that Michelle took a long time though. I had to check to see who she was voting for."

Obama then flew to neighboring Indiana to work the get-out-the-vote phones at an Indianapolis union hall.

"It's going to be tight as a tick here in Indiana," Obama told campaign volunteers. "So the question is who wants it more."

He planned to play basketball later in Chicago with friends, as he has on numerous election days, then attend a huge outdoor rally in the city's Grant Park.

McCain, who voted at a church in Phoenix, stepped out of a sport-utility vehicle with wife Cindy as a small crowd cheered, "Go, John, go!" and "We love you!"

They walked into the church, cast their ballots and left within minutes, avoiding any lines. The senator signed a poster and gave the thumbs-up sign before leaving without speaking to reporters.

McCain then flew to Grand Junction, Colo. to address a cheering crowd of supporters.

"I feel the momentum, I feel it, and you feel it," he told a cheering crowd. "And we're going to win this election. We're going to be up late tonight."

He called on his supporters to get friends and co-workers out to the polls: "Drag 'em there if you have to." The Republican senator planned one final stop in New Mexico, before returning home to a late-night rally at a Phoenix hotel.

Speaking Tuesday on ABC's "Good Morning America," the Arizona senator said he had no regrets about his campaign.

"It's been one of the most incredible experiences that anyone can have," McCain said. "I've loved every minute of it. Every day, being able to meet the people we've met and go the places we've gone, it's been an unforgettable experience."

He told CBS's Early Show that the believes that most battleground states have "closed up" and that there is a "a good scenario" for a victory.

In House and Senate elections, Democrats seemed poised to extend their hold on Congress.The GOP was fighting a strong headwind due to the economic crisis and an unpopular incumbent Republican president.

Of the 35 Senate races on Tuesday's ballot, 22 are now held by Republicans, 13 by Democrats. Senate Democrats hold a narrow 51-49 majority, and only thanks to the support of two independents.

Their goal Tuesday is reaching a coveted 60-seat, filibuster-proof Senate majority. Leaders in both parties portrayed that as a long shot. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., head of the party's senatorial campaign committee, acknowledged ahead of the voting that "Democrats are poised to pick up some seats."

His Democratic counterpart, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., predicted "a whole lot of seats" for Democrats, but said reaching a 60-vote majority was unlikely.

In the House, Democrats were counting on heavy turnouts to capture more than 15 GOP seats, and they had a good chance to wrest away another two dozen seats. Republicans had fewer than a dozen Democratic targets they had any hope of defeating.

If so, it would be the first time in more than 75 years that Democrats would ride large waves of victory to bigger congressional margins in back-to-back elections.

McCain's running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, returned to her hometown of Wasilla to vote and said she looked forward to the end of the day. She planned to join McCain Tuesday evening in Phoenix.

"I hope, I pray, I believe that I'll be able to wake up as vice president-elect and be able to get to work in a transition mode with a president-elect McCain," she said after voting in the town hall where she once served as mayor.

The governor said she had a "very optimistic, very confident view of what's going to happen today."

On her way into the polling place, Palin, accompanied by her husband, Todd, and wearing a brown, hooded jacket, hugged friends and shook hands with poll workers and other voters.

Obama's running mate, Sen. Joe Biden, voted at a private school about half-mile from his home in the Wilmington area. Biden walked into the school holding the hand of his mother, Jean Biden.

Biden's wife, Jill, and his daughter, Ashley, also cast their ballots. After emerging from the voting booth, Biden gave a thumbs up and kissed his wife. He joked with his mother, saying, "Don't tell them who you voted for."

Contributing: Peter Eisler, in Raleigh, N.C.; Larry Copeland, in Tampa; Marisol Bello, in Detroit; Dennis Cauchon, in Columbus, Ohio

The Associated Press