Barack Obama, the young Senator from Illinois, was on the verge of a historic win in the American presidential election last night, as the US TV networks projected victories for the Democrat over his Republican rival John McCain in key battleground states, including Pennsylvania and Ohio.
The losses seemed certain to block any last remaining path to victory for Mr McCain while opening the doors to the Oval Office for Mr Obama, who for 20 months has campaigned on a message of hope in a bid to become the first African-American elected to the highest office in the land.
As ballots were counted after a day of record turn-out, numbers from Florida, another key state, favoured Mr Obama. After early network projections for a handful of eastern states, Mr Obama stretched a lead in the electoral college votes. Senator Obama, who needed 270 votes to declare himself the victor, watched the results from a Chicago hotel room before addressing a massive crowd in nearby Grant Park. "Everything at this juncture seems positive to us," noted David Axelrod, the top Obama strategist, as the first results trickled in. Congressional races were showing more blue than red. Among Republican senators projected to lose were Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina and John Sununu of New Hampshire.
Clear to most observers, however, were the record turnout numbers. From Ohio to California, from Illinois to Oklahoma, electoral officials reported queues forming even before dawn as Americans seized their chance to determine the outcome of an election that was set to make history, if not by sending the first ever black American to the Oval Office, then by picking the first woman vice-president.
They came before work. They snuck out from work. Some had newspapers in hand to read the final reports from the campaign trail as they waited their turn for the booths. Some had coffee to keep them alert. Older folk brought chairs, worried that the wait might be too much. Others had music to pass the time. When they were done, some had tears in their eyes. If history was about to happen, they had been part of it.
For African Americans, the sensation of ticking the box for Mr Obama was especially intense. "I want to tell the American people that today we see God’s hand and the sun is now shining in the darkness," said Velma Pate, a poll worker in Glenwood, near Chicago. Mrs Pate is old enough to remember segregation in America – a time, she recalled, when she could not drink from the same water fountain as a white person.
Team Obama knew the voter surge was good news. The senator's path to victory was predicated on bringing millions of first-time voters to the polls, particularly the young and members of minorities. For America, it was yet more profound. Call it the demise of cynicism or the end of apathy. The country that pretends to be the standard-bearer of the democracy and presumes, indeed, to export it to the other countries around the world was living up to its own standards. Uncle Sam, after years of lethargy, had caught election fever.
Both candidates did the traditional thing, casting their votes in their home cities – Mr Obama in Chicago and Mr McCain in Phoenix – at the start of the day before the glare of the cameras.
In a break with tradition that reflected the desperation in the Republican camp, Mr McCain attended election-day rallies in two western battleground states, Colorado and New Mexico."Fight for our country! Fight for what you believe in!" he told supporters at a rally at Grand Junction, Colorado. "Fight for America. Fight for the ideals and culture of free people! Fight for our future! Fight for justice for all! Stand up, stand up and fight!"
Mr Obama dawdled for several minutes with his wife and daughters at the voting machine at a polling station in a south Chicago school gymnasium. While the senator was set to appear at a huge election night party in Chicago's Grant Park late last night – after playing basketball in the afternoon – a quieter event was set for Mr McCain at the Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix.
Glitches in voting seemed to be fairly limited, although reports were coming in from some precincts in the critical state of Virginia of scattered problems with voting machines. Elsewhere, polling personnel said most problems, mostly mechanical, stemmed from the sheer high volume of voters.
Financial markets seemed to be looking forward if not to Mr Obama winning then at least all suspense ending. US stocks had their biggest election day rally ever, while global credit markets showed more signs of a thaw.
Democrats have suffered cruel disappointment before, not least when George Bush snatched victory from Al Gore in 2000. Mr Obama had said the polls would narrow in the last days of the race – but they hadn't. Even Karl Rove, the dark master of political strategy for Mr Bush, was predicting a convincing win for Mr Obama.
An Obama win is one thing. If, by this morning, it is clear he has polled more than 50 per cent, however, he will be the first Democrat to break that threshold since Jimmy Carter. His mandate to govern will be solid, helped also by the increased majorities expected for Democrats on Capitol Hill. Party officials were looking particularly for gains in the US Senate, perhaps taking the party to the 60-seat mark that would protect it from Republican filibusters.
Among those expressing confidence was the former president, Bill Clinton, who voted early in Chappaqua, New York, with his wife, Hillary. But he had a warning: "Our party tomorrow will wake up with an enormous opportunity but an enormous responsibility."
The managing of expectations will be the first order of business today. Mr Bush remains the land’s chief executive until the inauguration of his successor on 20 January. Thereafter, the new president will inherit a country beset by economic difficulties and mired in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It is, in part, because of those multiple challenges that so many voters felt compelled to take part in the election. But the turnout was, of course, driven by an election strewn with drama and juiced by an unusually compelling cast of candidates. It was the first election since 1928 when neither an incumbent president nor vice-president had sought the nomination of their parties.
Exit polls projected Obama victories in the key battleground states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, which left his Republican rival John McCain with few ways of reaching the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.
The latest totals showed Mr Obama, who would become the first black president of the United States, led the Republican by 194 electoral votes to 64.
No Republican has ever won the White House without first winning Ohio and Fox News projected an Obama victory there shortly after 2am GMT.
In Ohio, Mr Obama had the help of Governor Ted Strickland, previously a supporter of his former rival Hillary Clinton, as he tried to win over rural areas which went strongly in her favour in the Democratic primary election.
Mr Obama also lost to Mrs Clinton in the Democratic primary election in Pennsylvania, and the state was also at the centre of his only gaffe of the campaign, when he told a San Francisco fundraiser that economic frustrations had made small-town Pennsylvania voters "bitter" and driven them to "cling to guns or religion".
Despite this, he won the support of the state's voters tonight and its 21 electoral votes, giving him a significant boost in the race for the White House.
It was seen as a must-win for his Republican rival John McCain, who campaigned aggressively there.
Pennsylvania went into the election with more than 8.7 million registered voters, a record number. The increase was primarily caused by Democrats, and the Democratic Party had more than a million more registered voters in the state than the Republicans.
On the campaign trail, Mr Obama told the state's workers, and its unemployed, that Republicans had abandoned them and promised to invest in technologies that would create jobs and cut middle-class taxes to help families pay their bills.
Mr Obama also won New Hampshire, the scene of two great comebacks for Mr McCain and Mrs Clinton during the primary season - memories which the 47-year-old Illinois senator will now be able to put behind him.
Once seen as Republican, New Hampshire was decided by thin margins in the past two presidential elections and was the only state in the nation to vote for Mr Bush in 2000 and then for Democratic nominee John Kerry in 2004.
As the 21-month £1.5 billion race for the White House entered its final moments, Mr Obama also chalked up victories in Rhode Island, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, Illinois, Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and the District of Columbia.
He also won three of Maine's four electoral votes, according to projections. It is one of two states which can split its allocated votes between the two candidates.
Meanwhile Mr McCain took Kentucky, Oklahoma, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Dakota, Wyoming and Alabama.
A national CNN exit poll showed the US economy was the number one issue for 62% of voters, followed by the Iraq war (10%), terrorism and healthcare (both 9%) and energy policy (7%).
Earlier, in keeping with tradition, voting began at the stroke of midnight in a handful of remote towns in the north-eastern state of New Hampshire.
The residents of Dixville Notch have been meeting in the town's ballot room at midnight each election day since 1960.
Mr Obama won the town's poll by 15 votes to six for Mr McCain - a landslide victory after more than 40 years of Republican loyalty.
Later, Mr McCain won Georgia and West Virginia, leaving him with 69 electoral votes compared with Mr Obama's 194.
A jubilant crowd of thousands gathered in Grant Park in downtown Chicago on an unseasonably mild night, confident Mr Obama would win the presidency by dawn.
They reacted each time the Democrat was announced the winner in another state - and the cheers were particularly loud when Pennsylvania and Ohio fell.
Interviews with voters suggested that almost six in 10 women were backing Mr Obama nationwide, and men leaned his way by a narrow margin.
Just over half of whites supported Mr McCain, giving him a slim advantage in a group that President George Bush carried overwhelmingly in 2004.
At the White House, spokeswoman Dana Perino said Mr Bush told dinner guests: "May God bless whoever wins tonight."
As more projections came in, Mr Obama won the key battleground of New Mexico while Mr McCain took Louisiana.
The Democrat now leads by 199 electoral votes to 78, but the popular vote was much closer, with a 50%-49% split in favour of Mr Obama.
The difference was just 320,000 votes, but the popular vote has no role in electing the next president.
Mr Obama also won Iowa, where his landmark run for the presidency began in January with a surprisingly strong victory in the state's first-in-the-nation caucuses.
Mr McCain took the traditionally Republican states of Utah and Kansas, leaving the electoral race at 207-89 in favour of Mr Obama.