TAMPA, Fla. (AP) - After months of candidate visits, campaign bitterness and a barrage of costly television ads, Florida was poised Tuesday to play a crucial role in picking America's next president.
The state has 29 electoral votes up for grabs - the most of any swing state - and both President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney worked hard here until the final moments of the campaign.
Obama held a rally Sunday in South Florida for about 23,000 people. On Monday, Romney began his final day of campaigning in front of at least a couple of thousand people in the central part of the state. Both campaigns and their allies poured $130 million into TV ads.
Early returns showed Obama and Romney splitting vote. With more than 4.8 million votes tallied, the candidates were separated by just thousands of votes and were trading leads as the ballots were counted.
Florida, with its diversity, wealth and political cache has long been seen as a toss-up by political experts. Obama won here in 2008, but since then, the state's unemployment and foreclosure rates have remained above the national average. Another win in Florida would all but assure Obama four more years in the White House.
Voters chose Sen. Bill Nelson to keep his seat in a race against GOP Rep. Connie Mack. Florida also picked seats for Congress; the Legislature; whether to retain three state Supreme Court justices; and voters decided on 11 state constitutional amendments.
Turnout appeared to be heavy, with long lines reported in many places, even though more than 4.5 million people out of nearly 12 million registered voters cast ballots early. There were reports of sporadic, but mostly minor problems at the polls Tuesday. One Florida elections office mistakenly told voters in robocalls the election was on Wednesday. Another office lost power for about 45 minutes.
Florida also played a crucial role in the contested 2000 presidential election, which was marred by hanging chads and a lengthy recount. Republican George W. Bush won after the Supreme Court declared him the winner over Democrat Al Gore by a scant 537 votes.
Ashely Bass, 22, voted in her second presidential contest, choosing Romney. The Lee County resident in the southwest part of the state picked Republican Sen. John McCain four years ago.
"I see a lot of Bush in Romney and I really like him. The only thing I don't like is his ideas about Planned Parenthood. I am against abortion, but I am not against birth control," she said.
Others said they liked the president's recent leadership.
"I made my mind up when I saw Obama get that storm response out so quick," said retiree Raymond Tisdale, 77, of Port Charlotte. "I was thinking about voting for Romney, but he just flip flopped too much."
The former building contractor continued said he sees the economy improving.
"Obama had a lot on his plate when he started, like unemployment going up, but now it seems like it has turned in the other direction. We all need to make a living," he said.
Florida's voters are difficult to categorize. It's a transient state, the fourth-largest in the nation. One of every five residents is foreign-born and those born in the U.S. probably came from another state. There are New Yorkers, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, African-Americans and Haitians. There are Southern conservatives, soccer moms, wealthy same-sex couples and still wealthier Midwestern retirees. In rural pockets in the state's middle, there are poor farmers and even poorer farmworkers.
Political preferences break down loosely by region. North Florida is solidly conservative. South Florida generally votes Democratic. Then there's the Interstate 4 corridor, stretching from Tampa in the west to Daytona Beach in the east. Some have called it the most crucial swing region in the most crucial swing state in the nation.
It can't be said enough: Florida is a microcosm of the United States.
Because of this, Obama and Romney - and their wives, vice presidential picks and high profile political supporters - have held dozens of rallies over the last two years. It's also one of the reasons why Republicans chose Tampa as the site of its national convention this past August.