President Barack Obama faces a lengthy and familiar set of challenges after riding a wave of support from moderates, women and minorities to a re-election victory over Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
With final results from Tuesday's vote still being counted, Obama had won at least 303 electoral votes and led Romney by more than 1 million votes overall to claim a surprisingly solid victory in a race that polls and pundits had predicted would be tighter.
In addition to giving Obama and Vice President Joe Biden another four-year term, voters elected another Republican majority in the U.S. House and preserved the narrow Democratic majority in the Senate.
Now Obama and the new Congress that will look a lot like the old one will face fresh pressure to legislate a comprehensive deficit reduction deal that has been stymied so far by intransigence on the issue of tax reform.
In the short term, that means dealing with the so-called fiscal cliff -- a combination of tax hikes and mandated across-the-board spending cuts set to kick in at year's end.
Failure to address the nation's chronic deficits and debt is considered a drag on economic growth and job creation. The lack of confidence in political will to find solutions contributed to a first-ever downgrade of the U.S. credit rating in August 2011.
Obama used his victory speech to euphoric supporters to warn of further fights and frustrations in their shared quest to restore equal opportunity for all.
"We are an American family and we rise or fall together as one nation," Obama said to prolonged cheers. "Tonight, in this election, you, the American people, reminded us that while our road has been hard, while our journey has been long, we have picked ourselves up, we have fought our way back, and we know in our hearts that for the United States of America, the best is yet to come."
He emphasized that the political arguments that come with democracy were a necessary part of the process.
"We will disagree, sometimes fiercely," Obama said, noting that "progress will come in fits and starts" and the victory Tuesday night "won't end all the gridlock."
Foreshadowing hard decisions ahead, the president said blind optimism and wishful idealism "can't substitute for the need to make difficult compromises to move forward."
House Speaker John Boehner, who backed away from a possible deficit reduction "grand bargain" with Obama last year over the president's demand for some tax hikes as part of the deal, immediately signaled a continued hard line.
"The American people re-elected the president, and re-elected our majority in the House," Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a statement. "If there is a mandate, it is a mandate for both parties to find common ground and take steps together to help our economy grow and create jobs, which is critical to solving our debt."
Reassess message and tactics
Other Republican leaders said the generally bad election for the GOP, which included losing the presidency and failing to win a Senate majority despite Democrats having to defend twice as many seats, meant the party needed to reassess its message and tactics.
"It's clear that with our losses in the presidential race and a number of key Senate races, we have a period of reflection and recalibration ahead for the Republican Party," said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "While some will want to blame one wing of the party over the other, the reality is candidates from all corners of our GOP lost tonight. Clearly we have work to do in the weeks and months ahead."
Analysts agreed, arguing that the tea party movement helped defeated moderates such as veteran Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana in the primaries, only to see the social conservative who ousted him -- State Treasurer Richard Mourdock -- lose in Tuesday's general election.
"It's not about geography anymore with the Republican Party," said Margaret Hoover, a GOP strategist and CNN contributor. "It's about demographics, and we've got to start thinking about growing the party."
David Gergen, CNN's senior political analyst, said the Republican Party must move its foundation back toward the political center from the increasingly right-wing positions pushed by tea party and social conservatives.
"It seems to me that the lesson has to be clear to Republicans that they have to adjust," Gergen said. "They've gotten too far out."
A political tightrope
Romney, the multimillionaire businessman turned politician, tried to walk a political tightrope in the campaign by appealing to conservatives in order to win a grueling GOP primary that included 20 debates, then shifting toward the political center in the last month to woo moderates.
It opened him to charges by Obama of lacking deeply held principles and flip-flopping on issues.
In a brief concession speech delivered at a somber post-election event that was supposed to have been a victory party, Romney congratulated Obama and said his
prayers would be with the president at such a challenging moment for the country.
"At a time like this we can't risk partisan bickering and political posturing," Romney said, telling his supporters that he wished he had "fulfilled your wishes to lead this great country in a different direction."
Obama withstood a late push by Romney in Pennsylvania and won the most hotly contested states of Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Iowa, Nevada and Colorado, according to CNN projections. One other battleground state, Florida, remained too close to call early Wednesday.
The president also easily won traditional Democratic strongholds of California, New York and other populous states such as Michigan, where Romney was born and his father served as governor.
Obama and Romney ran dead even in final polls that hinted at a result rivaling some of the closest presidential elections in history, reflecting the deep political chasm in the country.
A heavy turnout was reported in much of the nation, and both campaigns expressed confidence that they would prevail in what was expected to be a long night awaiting results from the eight battleground states still up for grabs.
There were no surprises early, as each candidate won the states they were expected to capture and the races were tight in the battlegrounds. Then Obama was projected to win New Hampshire, followed by Wisconsin and Iowa, giving him the first three of the swing states.
Now Romney needed something close to a sweep of the remaining battlegrounds, especially the big three of Florida, Virginia and Ohio, to have a chance of reaching the decisive threshold of 270 electoral votes. When Obama was projected the winner of Ohio, it ensured his victory with the margin bolstered by picking up Colorado, Nevada and Virginia.
Economy most important issue
The president won his home state of Illinois as well as Romney' s home state of Massachusetts -- where the Republican previously served as governor.
In all, Obama won 25 states and the District of Columbia, while Romney also won 24 states with Florida yet to be decided.
Around the country, voters formed long lines at polling places after record numbers participated in early balloting, indicating a strong turnout.
Sporadic reports of irregularities included malfunctioning voting machines and electoral hardships for some struggling to recover from the devastation of Superstorm Sandy in Northeast states.
Overall, the total cost of the election for president and Congress could top a record $6 billion, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. The figure covers spending from January 2011 through whatever totals emerge after Tuesday's election.
Outside groups accounted for the biggest boost in spending, with independent organizations dropping more than $970 million. The increase was largely related to the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that paved the way for super PACs to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money as long as they did not coordinate with the campaigns.
As the challenger, Romney sought to frame the election as a referendum on Obama's presidency and to capitalize on his own business background by depicting himself as better able to handle economic issues identified by voters as their biggest concern.
His campaign stump speech hammered Obama over high unemployment and what he called excessive taxes and regulations that Romney said stifled faster growth.
Obama and his team attacked Romney's politics and his background as a venture capitalist, saying he would back policies favoring the wealthy over the middle class and exacerbate the already widening income and opportunity disparity in the country.
The president portrayed the race as competing visions for the future and built on his central theme of restoring the promise of the American dream of equal opportunity for all.
In particular, Obama repeatedly noted he backed a taxpayer bailout that helped restore General Motors and Chrysler while Romney opposed it. The issue resonated in auto industry states like Michigan and Ohio, both of which ended up providing crucial electoral votes for Obama.
Aside from the policy differences, the election amounted to a campaign chess match targeting specific states and demographic groups as part of a plan to create a path to electoral success.
Re-election offered Obama, 51, the chance to secure a two-term legacy and seek further reforms he promised in his historic campaign of 2008 but was unable to deliver in the first four years. In particular, he has made comprehensive immigration reform a top target, as well as a deficit reduction plan that ends tax breaks for income over $250,000.
However, the wave of optimism that carried to him to victory four years ago seemed muted during the campaign this time, with former supporters angered by the failure to achieve the kind of change in Washington they believed Obama had promised but failed to deliver.
For Romney, who sought to become the nation's
first Mormon president, the election concluded a six-year quest for the White House.
Romney also failed in his first bid for the Republican nomination in 2008, then spent the next two years preparing for a second run that began in 2011 with the GOP primary campaign.
The 65-year-old was trying to win the office that his father -- former Michigan Gov. George Romney -- also sought but fell well short of winning in 1968.
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