President Barack Obama won a decisive re-election victory Tuesday, overcoming the worst recession since the Great Depression and a country divided over his policies to defeat Mitt Romney, appearing to drag undecided Florida along in a rout of battleground states. At 1:35 a.m. today, Obama emerged in Chicago with his wife and two daughters to an explosion of applause and Stevie Wonder's Signed, Sealed, Delivered. "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," Obama said. He congratulated Romney, saying "we may have battled fiercely but it's only because we love this country deeply," and said he looked forward to looking sitting down with him to address solutions to the nation's challenges.
Obama, 51, became the first president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt to win re-election with unemployment higher than 7.2 percent, propped up by a stubbornly improving economy and voters' apparent confidence that he better understands their needs and — as he repeatedly intoned — that he needs more time.
Once-cautious supporters in Chicago erupted at 11:10 p.m. EST when small but bitterly contested Iowa went for Obama, adding to victories in Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Michigan.
The race was called minutes later after Obama was declared the victor in Ohio, ending Romney's nearly seven-year quest for the White House. While that secured the Electoral College vote for Obama, the popular vote remained tight early into this morning, a vivid sign of how fractured the country remains.
Romney conceded to Obama by telephone but then appeared before supporters in Boston around 1 a.m., saying, "This is a time of great challenges for America and I pray that the president will be successful in guiding our nation."
The country is at a critical point, he said, and cannot risk "partisan bickering," appealing as he had late in the campaign for both parties to work together.
Obama will begin a second term facing heavy partisanship and also a country polarized by race. Romney, 65, was overwhelmingly backed by white voters, while Obama's coalition drew heavily on minorities.
In Florida, a state that had looked favorable to Romney going into Election Day, Obama held onto a small advantage early this morning as voting continued in South Florida, a hotbed of Democratic votes, with the prospect of a recount looming.
Pessimism over the economy ran high among voters, but half of all voters said former President George W. Bush was more to blame for the economy, exit polls showed.
"It was so messed up when he came into office," said Alana Mitchell, 27, who voted for Obama in Tampa. "He's been doing what he can, but he needs more time."
Florida, which was vital to Obama's victory four years ago, was tantalizingly close all night. At one point the two candidates each had 49.58 percent of the vote.
By 1:30 a.m., Obama held onto a lead by more than 59,000 votes. Under Florida law, a recount is automatically triggered in any race decided by a margin of one-half of one percent.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, campaigned on his business credentials, saying he was better equipped to turn around the economy, and the unpopularity of Obama's health care law. In the end, the law, which helped cost Democrats a lock on Congress in 2010, was low on voters' minds, exit polls showed.
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Tuesday was the climactic conclusion to a campaign that has burned for nearly two years, starting with the Republican primary, its colorful cast each taking a brief turn at the top, making Romney take a harder line on issues, none more damaging than immigration.
In a debate in Tampa in January, he said he would make things so difficult for millions of undocumented residents they would "self-deport." Hispanics continue to grow as a voting power and Romney helped further alienate the electorate from Republicans, perhaps causing long-term damage.
But Romney's financial and organizational advantage made the nomination inevitable, and he effectively stood alone to face Obama in April, when Rick Santorum dropped out.
Obama and his allies spent tens of millions early on negative ads based on Romney's career at the private equity firm Bain Capital, painting him as a heartless corporate raider who squeezed jobs for profit.
The race looked over heading into the fall, amid Romney's failure to connect with voters and self-inflicted wounds — his dismissive comments about the "47 percent" captured on secret video at a fundraiser in Boca Raton — until the first debate on Oct. 3. Romney dominated a lethargic opponent and was rewarded with a boost in the polls. Obama rebounded in the next two debates, and the race slipped back into a dead heat.
The drama continued through Election Day, which saw huge turnouts across the country despite the rise of early voting that drew more than 32 million people before Tuesday.
Long lines marked voting in key states across the country, dramatic even with the rise of early voting.
In Miami, thousands still stood on line when polls closed at 7 p.m. The law allows anyone in place by the deadline to cast their ballot, so voting continued into this morning.
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Voters in Pinellas County precinct 119, Campbell Park Recreation Center, were a window into the disparate views across the country.
Kia Wilkins, 25, was among the final few to cast a vote. She supported every Democrat on the ballot, including Obama. In 2008, she was pregnant and sick when she stood in line for hours to vote for him, and she didn't hesitate to stand in line for him again.
The health of the middle class was the most important issue to Wilkins, and though the economy has struggled over the past four years, she believes Obama has a plan to fix it.
"I feel like it took Bush eight years to mess it up," she said, "and I think it'll take Obama eight years to clean it up."
Elyse DeLoach, a former Democrat now affiliated with neither party, voted for Romney.
DeLoach, 25, became a Christian four years ago and has since supported the Republican Party. Its values, she said, better align with hers because she doesn't support abortion or gay marriage.
"Their identities had nothing to do with my vote," she said of the two presidential candidates. "I'm voting for a party, not a person."
Four years ago, DeLoach, who is black, didn't vote for Obama or the Republican nominee John McCain because she didn't know either of them well enough. Her mother had implored her to support Obama because they're both African-American.
That didn't matter to her in 2008, she said, and it didn't this year either.
Chris Williams, 28, is a Democrat from St. Petersburg but says he voted for nearly as many Republicans as he did for those from his own party. Eight years ago, he supported President Bush.
This year, Obama was his clear favorite. Over the last few months, the truck driver has heard the same question over and over: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"
"Personally," he said, "I am."
Times staff writer John Woodrow Cox contributed to this report. Contact Alex Leary at email@example.com.