Updated Sunday, November 4, 2012 at 07:20 PM
WASHINGTON — The United States will choose a president this week. It may not choose a course for the nation.
The country nears Election Day 2012 divided over the two major-party candidates — President Obama, a Democrat, and Mitt Romney, a Republican — suggesting a close verdict in either direction and a refusal to coalesce behind one or the other.
Obama could be defeated, just four years after seizing the presidency with a promise of hope and change.
The nation's division reflects the tepid state of the economy: not growing fast enough to ensure an easy re-election, nor bad enough to guarantee defeat.
It also reflects the age, a period of political drift since the end of the Cold War that's seen neither political party able to muster a solid, enduring majority, and an electorate prone to frequent substantial swings.
Both major parties have aggravated the division. Their attacks and flood of negative ads have been designed to court their own base of supporters, while further polarizing the country and likely leaving it just as hard to govern after the election as before.
Obama and Romney entered their final weekend of campaigning Saturday facing a landscape of competitive states amid conflicting signals about the outcome.
The president sought to shore up his standing in Midwestern states that had backed him enthusiastically last time. He assumed a defensive posture in Iowa and Wisconsin, two states where his advisers had openly scoffed at his rival's chances only months ago.
Romney worked to harness the enthusiasm running through the Republican Party to overcome the challenges he confronts in building an Electoral College majority. He fought to secure critical states such as Florida and Virginia without allowing others to slip away.
But after hundreds of millions of dollars in television commercials, months of campaigning and three widely viewed debates, the race was locked in the same dynamic that has defined it from the start: Obama, burdened by four years of economic struggle and partisan animosity, holding the slightest of edges in Ohio and other swing states, and Romney, bearer of the hopes of conservatives and voters convinced the nation is on the wrong path, fighting to overtake him.
The last defining question was whether Romney's support had hit a ceiling — blunted by Obama's opportunity to show leadership in the deadly aftermath of Hurricane Sandy — or whether he was on the verge of unseating a president in a dramatic finale.
In the closing hours of the campaign, Obama raced through four states Saturday as he tried to build enthusiasm among Democrats, saying: "I've got a lot of fight left in me."
Romney sought to tap into disappointment and discontent among voters as he rallied supporters: "I promise change, and I have a record of achieving it."
Confident, and yet ...
The confidence expressed by both campaigns belied the tight nature of the contest in at least seven states.
In their respective headquarters, advisers made convincing cases for why their candidate had the clearer path to 270 electoral votes, but when pressed they admitted to sleepless nights about a result that was expected to come down to a sliver of the electorate.
The pursuit of Ohio's 18 electoral votes drew the most attention, with the candidates scheduling multiple stops there before Tuesday, but the rest of the landscape was also volatile. Obama had the edge in Nevada and Romney in North Carolina, strategists agreed, while Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Virginia and Wisconsin were far closer.
In Wisconsin, Romney rallied voters Friday as his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, a native son, fought to rewrite the historical trends of a state that has not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan in 1984. Republicans lost the state by only a hairbreadth in 2000 after George W. Bush spent months tirelessly campaigning there.
Neil Newhouse, the pollster for the Romney campaign, compared the moment in the race to a football game: "It's a tie game, and there's a loose ball." Joel Benenson, the pollster for the Obama campaign, said instead that Obama held the edge and that Romney was running out of time to overcome him.
Senate races tighten
The duel between Obama and Romney also held implications for the fight for the Senate, where Democrats are increasingly hopeful of retaining control, as well as for races in the House, where Republicans are confident of keeping their majority. A burst of campaigning took place Saturday, with former President Clinton leading the charge for Democrats and Republican governors and other officials fanning out across the country.
The close nature of the presidential race was illustrated by the travel schedules, which left the candidates crossing paths, including stops Saturday afternoon only a few miles apart in Dubuque, Iowa, across the Mississippi River from Wisconsin. Four years ago, Obama carried Iowa and Wisconsin by wide margins, but he has struggled to lock down his support this year, creating an opening for Republicans.
"He's trying to do everything he can to rekindle what he had four years ago, but it's not there," said Gov. Terry Branstad of Iowa, a Republican.
The candidates are intimately familiar with the metrics and minutiae of the state-by-state races. In Iowa, for example, Democrats were pointing to 17,000 voter registrations in the past month, which narrowed the Republican advantage to about 1,400 voters, down from about 11,000 a month ago.
The campaign played out Saturday entirely on the terrain Obama won four years ago, when he expanded the battleground to Virginia and North Carolina for the first time in a generation. Republicans portrayed Romney's late push into Pennsylvania, where he was set to have a campaign rally Sunday, as a sign of strength.
"You have to look at what they're doing now," said Gov. Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania, a Republican. "They're engaging here. They're spending money here. The race is close, and that's when you try to push it over the line."
Democrats portrayed the move as an act of desperation, saying the state has not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since George H.W. Bush in 1988. The Democratic Party also has a voter-registration advantage of more than 1 million people in Pennsylvania.
A "Hail Mary"?
"This is what I would describe as a Hail Mary," said former Gov. Edward Rendell of Pennsylvania, a Democrat. "They have found out that it's not likely they'll carry Ohio, and the only way to do the electoral math is to carry Pennsylvania or a Michigan or even a Minnesota."
An aide to Romney said the campaign had decided to compete in Pennsylvania only after taking steps to finance advertising campaigns and get-out-the-vote operations fully in other states. The indication was that advisers viewed the state as worth a try.
In interviews, aides to Obama said he remained competitive in Florida, a state both sides had viewed as more favorable to Romney, who would face a hard road to victory without its 29 electoral votes.
Romney's campaign officials said they were confident he would win Florida, but scheduled a visit by Romney to the state Monday.
They said they were less certain about Virginia, where a conservative third-party candidate could siphon off Romney votes.
He was scheduled to make two stops in Virginia on Monday, including one in the northern suburbs, a region that was pivotal to Obama's becoming the first Democratic presidential candidate in four decades to win the state. It is part of the Romney campaign's strategy of winning over voters who supported Obama in 2008.
It's still the economy
The economy remains the dominant issue four years after voters went to the polls with the nation's finances in free fall, jobs disappearing, pensions shrinking, housing values plummeting.
Whether people believe things are getting better — and how much better — is key to whether Obama wins or loses. By several measures, they feel better, but not great.
"It's getting better," said Heather Atwood, a telecommunications worker from Las Vegas. "Four years ago, I was upside down on two houses. Now I'm coming out of it."
She'll vote for Obama.
About four in 10 Americans say the country is headed in the right direction. That's up from one in 10 on Election Day four years ago, and from two in 10 the day Obama took office. But it's not a majority.
And income is down, more since the end of the recession than during it.
"Business had kind of died," said Kevin Williams, a drywaller from Celina, Ohio, who has cut his crew from four to one and gets smaller jobs now. "People are afraid to spend money."
He'll vote for Romney.
Obama came to office with dreams of being a unifying leader who would transform the country and its politics. He invited comparisons to Abraham Lincoln. The news media pictured him as Franklin D. Roosevelt, marshaling an expansive federal government in a time of economic peril, and building an enduring Democratic majority in the process.
His first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, famously looked out at an anxious country and saw opportunity for a broad agenda.
"They were wrong," said George Edwards, a presidential scholar and author of several books on the presidency.
"They thought the public was malleable and would be responsive to bold initiatives. Instead, it made the public resistant. It did not signal increased liberalism. It did not signal increased support for government activism. ... When people are losing their jobs, seeing their retirement disappear, they become cautious."
The country is on the verge of a possible fourth straight change of course after tossing the Republicans out of the House majority in 2006, the Republicans out of the White House in 2008, and the Democrats out of the House majority in 2010.
"We've had three change elections in a row," said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion.
"It's unclear where the country is headed, or what the country is looking for."
CAROLYN KASTER / AP
President Obama reaches to shake a hand as he greets people after speaking at a campaign event Saturday at Mentor High School in Ohio, before traveling to Wisconsin.
CHARLES DHARAPAK / AP
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney greets supporters as he campaigns at Portsmouth International Airport in Newington, N.H., on Saturday.