With the hours draining away, rivals Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and Sen. John McCain of Arizona were taking the long way home in a final lap of frenzied campaigning of a nearly two-year presidential quest.
With polls suggesting Mr. McCain faces a steep uphill path to an upset victory, the Republican began the day in Florida, followed by lightning stops in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Indiana, New Mexico and Nevada before returning to Prescott, Arizona to cast his ballot.
Mr. Obama, aiming to pad his lead by campaigning in states won by President Bush in 2004, also started the day in Florida and traveled on to North Carolina and Northern Virginia before flying home to Chicago. He kept to his schedule even after learning early in the day that his ailing grandmother Madelyn Dunham — whom he suspended his campaign to visit in Hawaii late last month — had passed away after a long battle with cancer.
The 72-year-old Mr. McCain, who supporters say has been energized in the race’s closing days, even plans to break with precedent by doing some post-vote politicking in Colorado and New Mexico Tuesday after casting his ballot.
Sensing one last opportunity, the Republican hammered away Monday at the revelation of an audio recording of an interview Mr. Obama gave in January, in which, Republicans said, the Democrat conceded his environmental program would drive businesses relying on coal power out of business.
Listen to what Mr. Obama says on his plans for the coal states.
“How out of touch is that?” Mr. McCain told a rally in Blountville, Tenn., just over the line from Virginia’s coal-producing southwestern region. “I’m not going to let our coal industry go bankrupt.”
The Obama campaign insisted that the coal comment was taken out of context. Asked about his “cap-and-trade” program to limit carbon emissions by U.S. producers, Mr. Obama appeared to say the cost of obtaining pollution permits would be too high for new coal-fired factories and plants.
“So if somebody want to build a coal-powered plant, they can,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle. “It’s just that it will bankrupt them because they’re going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that’s being emitted.”
The issue could prove a last-minute boost for Mr. McCain’s hopes in Virginia, Pennsylvania and other coal-producing states.
Both candidates, along with running mates Sen. Joseph R. Biden, Delaware Democrat, and GOP Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, mostly stuck with the tried and true in their final pitches, with Mr. McCain vowing to score a historic upset and Mr. Obama warning supporters not to be complacent as he seeks to become the first African-American ever to capture the White House.
“Florida, don’t believe for a second that this election’s over,” Mr. Obama said in Jacksonville. “We’re going to have to work like our future depends on it for the next 24 hours, because it does. “Now it’s all about who wants it more, who believes in it more.”
Mr. McCain had a lackluster start Monday morning. After little more than four hours of sleep, the nominee headed out to an early morning rally at a huge stadium in Tampa. Reporters thought the event was inside the home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers pro football team, but the first rally of the day was on a grassy lot adjacent to the stadium. Several hundred attended, but one reporter pointed out that Mr. Obama would have been inside the stadium.
A few weeks earlier, Mr. Obama drew 8,000 at the baseball stadium Steinbrenner Field in Tampa. However, Mr. Obama did not come close to filling the 16,000-capacity Jacksonville Veterans’ Memorial Arena during his first stop of the day.
Mr. McCain warned once again that Mr. Obama planned to raise taxes and government spending, accusing his opponent of running for “Redistributionist-in-Chief.”
Mr. McCain, his voice hoarse as he stumped in far eastern Tennessee to reach both the Virginia and North Carolina media markets, expressed confidence.
“The Mac is back! We’re going to win this election!” he yelled in a packed airport hangar in Blountsville, Tenn.
Mrs. Palin started the day in Ohio, one of six states she was visiting on the campaign’s final day. Mr. Biden was also in Ohio Monday and planned stops in Missouri and Pennsylvania.
Mrs. Palin attacked Mr. Obama’s tax plans, saying his real agenda had been exposed in his exchange with “Joe the Plumber,” the Ohio plumber who challenged the Democrat’s tax proposals at a recent rally.
“You would be so surprised to find out what we found out, even in the last could of days, in the eleventh hour of this campaign,” said Mrs. Palin. “Thank the Lord, more and more light is being shown on his plans.”
Congressional candidates were also out in force, with forecasters again predicting a good day for Democrats Tuesday. Given the weak economy and President Bush’s low poll numbers, the party is hoping to pad its 31-vote edge in the 435-seat House of Representatives and gain a net of nine new Senate seats for a filibuster-proof 60-seat caucus in the Senate.
Eleven governships area also up for grabs, with neither party projected to score a major pick-up.
Election-eve polls provided little comfort to embattled Republicans, as even the most favorable give Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden a 5-point lead nationally and significant cushions in such crucial battleground states as Pennsylvania, Virginia and Colorado.
The final Gallup-USA Today national poll gave Mr. Obama an 11-point lead, 55 percent to 44 percent. A Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll put the Democrat’s edge at 51 percent to 43 percent. The closest survey, by the polling firm Rasmussen, still gave Mr. Obama a 51 percent to 46 percent edge.
A Quinnipiac University poll gave the Democrat a nine-point lead in Ohio and a 12-point bulge in Pennsylvania, with Florida too close to call. A loss in any of those states would virtually guarantee a Republican loss in the Electoral College.
“If you hoping for (or dreading) indications of a clear shift in voter preferences on the surveys released in the last 24 hours, you will not find them here this morning,” according to Pollster.com analysts Mark Blumenthal.
Team McCain insisted that the polls are flat-out wrong.
“They’re counting on 20 percent of the vote being young people below the age of 30. Well, guess what? In the early voting, it’s down to like 12 percent, so all of a sudden the model of all those polls is skewed,” campaign manager Rick Davis said. “The same goes with minorities. A lot of these guys have juiced up their numbers.”
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, was out on the stump for the man who defeated her in a hard-fought primary battle, urging voters in St. Charles, Mo. to “take back our country” by voting for Mr. Obama.
“I think the Republicans are out of time, out of luck, and tomorrow, we will show them out of the White House,” she said.
With record numbers of Americans already having cast absentee and early ballots, turnout Tuesday is still expected to be heavy and could shatter the 2004 record of 121 million votes cast.
The grueling contest clearly has begun to wear on the leading players.
Mr. Obama told radio host Russ Parr in an interview that he was “pretty peaceful” a day before the vote. He told the CBS “Early Morning Show” that the one thing that displeased him from the campaign were attacks by
Republicans and “right-wing media outlets” on his wife, Michelle.
But the brisk campaign pace seemed to be catching up with Mr. Obama, who momentarily forgot where he was in his morning rally in Florida.
“The Republicans are spending a lot of money on ads here in Ohio, but if you watch those ads, you don’t know, uh, Florida — I’ve been traveling too much.” said Mr. Obama, who spend Sunday in the Buckeye State. The crowd gave him some gentle boos.
He laughed and added: “They’ve been spending a lot of money on Ohio, too!”
Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain finished up the night in a “joint” appearance, taping separate interviews with ESPN anchor Chris Berman to air during the halftime of the Monday Night Football telecast between the Washington Redskins and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Asked for the one thing they would change in sports if elected, Mr. Obama took a lighter tack, saying he would call for a formal playoff to determine the college football national champion.
Mr. McCain was more serious, saying he would take on the issue of performance-enhancing drugs by athletes.
“It’s not good for the athletes, it’s very [unfair] for those who don’t do it, and I think it can attack the very integrity of all sports going all the way down to high school,” he said.
Christina Bellantoni reported from Florida. Joesph Curl was traveling with the McCain campaign.