Welcome to our US Election Countdown Diary, Al Jazeera's daily analysis of what's happening in the run-up to the US presidential elections as voters prepare to elect their 44th president on November 4.
With news, views and a healthy degree of scepticism, we'll be bringing you the latest on the elections from across the US and the world.
Sarah Brown, Chicago, election day
I finally made it out into the throng of Obama supporters currently milling around Grant Park - cheering, booing whenever McCain is mentioned, munching on pizza or just sitting on rugs and enjoying the scene around them.
The huge television screens are constantly blaring out CNN, with resounding cheers filling the area whenever a state goes to Obama, the largest cheers being for the crucial states of Ohio and Pennslyvania.
|Ratclife says the atmosphere in Obama's home town is "breathtaking"
Roars of approval are also heard, whenever a pundit solemnly intones that it is not looking good for the Republican candidate.
The tension is palpable, many seem certain their candidate is so close to victory, although those that predict a landslide are sometimes hushed by their friends, as though fearful of jinxing the results.
Taurence Ratclife, a young real estate agent "born and raised" in Chicago, described the atmosphere as "breathtaking, it's a proud moment right now and I'm taking it in almost with a sense of disbelief."
"I'm looking forward to the future when he's president and ... he's a president that will regain the respect that America has had throughout the world," he said, his Obama badge taking pride of place on his shirt.
Meanwhile the media pack seems to have grown even bigger, everything from Dutch radio to Japanese television to two young web journalists from Indiana who seemed slightly dazed by the entire experience (but who very kindly helped me figure out my camera).
All are fighting for the best possible spot to be if and when any definitive result is announced, which has led to some rather undignified elbowing as reporters fight to gain a decent view of the riser where Obama will speak.
Regardless, all eyes will be on Obama soon.
Sarah Brown, Chicago, election day
The size of the line to enter Grant Park, where Barack Obama will speak later on Tuesday evening, was sizeable at 4:30pm [22:30 GMT] - incredible when you note that the area does not even open to those 70,000 or so lucky enough to secure highly coveted tickets until 8:30pm.
|Douglas says he remembers segregation in his home state of Mississippi
There was practically a carnival atmosphere amongst those in the line, almost all were festooned with an assortment of Obama badges, caps, t-shirts, and in two men's cases - skirts.
A group of students carrying an enormous banner urging people to "join the Obamanomenon" drew large cheers from the crowd as they paraded around those gathered.
Some had even travelled in from other parts of the US. Connie Hornyak, a social worker from Chicago who lives in California, flew in to the city on Sunday just to be here.
"He's our man, I think his policies will turn us around as a nation not only economically but socially," she says.
"I think he's going to make it happen. He really gets it, he understands what the common people are like and he's not just for White rich Americans."
More poignantly, a man called Douglas, originally from Mississippi, told Al Jazeera he grew up in Mississippi and remembered segregation, and that an Obama victory is "a long time coming".
"I'm a child of World War II, we've come a long way since then," he said.
Meanwile, after battling through crowds and heavy security, in the press area, a phalanx of journalists have taken up position behind the riser where Obama will speak - albeit behind several panes of bullet proof glass.
It is a telling reminder that, while the US has come a long way, there are still fears there are those who would try to drag it backwards.
Will Stebbins, Washington DC, election day
Like everyone else I had been waiting for this day for some time.
I had promised to take my children along with me to vote, so that they could share in this historic day. They were more excited than I was.
We waited until the afternoon, in the hope that the lines would shorten, as I was worried that a long wait might permanently blunt their civic enthusiasm.
What I hadn't anticipated was the anti-climax at the polling booth.
Having given my name and birth date, I was told that there was a problem with my registration and that I would have to vote using a provisional ballot.
I protested that I had voted in the primaries earlier in the year with no problems, and that nothing had happened since, such as a change of address, that would have in any way affected my status.
In response I was given a card with instructions on how to contact the Montgomery County Board of Elections, who would be happy to discuss my problem, but if I wanted to vote now, it had to be with a provisional ballot.
The "precinct captain" appeared to find out what was slowing down the line. I repeated my complaint.
He insisted that my vote would be counted.
"It won't be included in tomorrow's results," he said, "but, by law, it has to be counted."
My 10-year-old daughter looked bemused, and my son popped the question I knew was coming.
"What's a provisional ballot?" he asked.
The birds and the bees would have been easier to explain.
I did my best to explain, and add some historical solemnity to the moment, which wasn't an easy thing to do crouching behind the makeshift cardboard screen reserved for the filling out of a provisional ballot.
Maryland is by no means a battleground state, and the winning margin won't be a matter of single digit votes.
Yet, the anti-climax aside, everyone likes to feel that their vote will be counted, and that it will matter.
The massive turnout for this election has revealed weaknesses in the systems used to manage our elections. The lines alone have been enormous, with some waits reported at 10 hours.
That's no way to encourage citizens to engage in the electoral process.
The system is clearly only compatible with a low voter turnout. It will need a serious upgrade if the sort of turnout seen this year is to be maintained, which must surely be a national priority.
If you have to wait for hours to cast your vote, only to be told it won't be counted until after the results have been published, you may not bother in four years time.
Hamish Macdonald, Virginia, election day
For the people choosing 'change', today meant a very early start.
From well before dawn voters turned up across Virginia. We arrived in Arlington, Virginia just after 5am to find hundreds of people queueing in the dark, cold morning.
If the polls are right, they'll be making history today.
One woman, sat on a fold-up chair wrapped in a blanket, eating a banana with her partner. She told us "we thought the earlier the better."
|Voters line up at the polls in Virginia
At the fire station in Arlington, the doors were opened at 6am and within minutes the polling booths were buzzing with officials giving instructions on how to use the electronic voting machinges.
It soon became very apparent that predictions of a huge voter turnout would be met. Across the country well over 100 million people are casting ballots today.
Outside the polling stations the queues were huge and throbbing with excitement.
We stood in between two polling stations where the lines had actually stretched so far that they met in the middle.
One line went all the way down to the fire station, the other line went all the way to the local school. People turned up with books, coffee, breakfast and newspapers. Never before have this many Americans turned up so early to vote.
We met one voter, Damara Ross who was among the first in line.
A native of Chicago, she now lives in the battleground state of Virginia, "I think we're going into a new day and a new age, no matter who wins. I'm really proud of our country and how far we've come" she said.
Ms Ross who works two jobs and studies full time is one of the many hoping that "change" will actually mean something.
This state is leaning towards Democratic candidate Barack Obama according to an average of the latest polls, but there is still strong support for the Republican Senator John McCain. One McCain supporter told us "I'm holding on till the end."
In the voting lines it is clear that this election has engaged generations and minorities that never before have felt included in the democratic process - even if it does mean waiting in queues for hours.
In the suburbs of Washington DC where memories stretch back much longer than the lines, it must feel amazing to be here now and be swept up in the moment.
One elderly African-American woman told us "the World and the United States should be very proud. It took 200 years for this to happen."
Her friend said "being a black American, to have someone who's really going to make a change not only in this country, but through out the entire world, this is really something we've all been waiting for."
Election officials, are worried that the system could buckle under the pressure of an unprecedented number of newly registered voters.
In Florida, infamous for election day controversies, there's so far been few reports of anything going wrong.
In New York, huge queues formed. The scenes are being replicated across the country. This is a day everyone here wants to take part in and it is just as thrilling to watch.
Will Stebbins, Washington DC, election day
The traffic slowed to a crawl about 20 miles from Manassas, the site of Barack Obama’s last campaign rally.
I wanted to have something to tell my grandchildren when they asked me where I was during the historic election of 2008, but it was starting to look like I would be listening to the final speech on the car radio, stuck in traffic.
|Obama gave a convincing performance at
his final campaign rally [AFP]
Not quite the epic story I was looking for.
The one thing that kept me going was the regular announcement that the candidate was running late.
There was 'hope.'
Eventually, an unbroken line of abandoned cars appeared on each side of the highway. It had an eerie, science fiction feel, as though the drivers had been mysteriously transported, but it did suggest we were getting close.
Nearer the Prince William County Fairgrounds, the mood turned more Apocalypse Now, with a chaos of flares and flashing lights, and the distant sound of rock music.
I abandoned the car where I could, and joined a human tide headed toward the music.
It's impossible to tell how a big a crowd is if you're standing in the middle of it, but I can safely say that there were a lot people.
The campaign has standardized their turnout announcements for the rallies at 100,000, a figure that is then dutifully reported as fact. In this case, I would have to give them the benefit of the doubt.
It was also a diverse crowd. When the candidate finally appeared, couples of all colors and persuasions embraced.
If I stood on tiptoes and craned, I could see the podium, and just make out a figure standing at it. The speech, however, came through loud and clear.
I had heard most of it before, as must have anyone who has been within earshot of a radio or television in the last year.
Yet as he stumbled over well worn punch lines, the distinct style and substance of both the candidate and the campaign were on clearly communicated.
At his last rally, before his last crowd, there was no hysteria, only the famous calm. Nothing was under threat, and there was nothing to fear. Obama was even gracious about his opponent.
It struck me as the polar opposite to the strategies behind the last two Republican electoral victories.
These made 'wedge issues' famous – controversial themes targeted at a specific demographic, designed to make them so angry they ran to the polls to cast an outraged vote.
His campaign has been a gamble on a wholly different political calculus: that an appeal to a sense of inclusion, rather than a recognition of difference, will ultimately get more voters to the polls to pull the lever with your name on it.
That, and the financial crisis of course.
He did leave me one good story for the grandchildren, which I hadn’t heard before. I like to think he saved it for the last rally.
It was a story from the early days of the election, a parable for his entire campaign, on how even in the most disappointing circumstances a single, unlikely person, can be the source of renewed hope.
The message was none to subtle, but the story was engaging, and he managed to an intimacy with the crowd. You could say we were eating from the palm of his hand.
That's not easy to do with 100,000 people.
We'll find out today if it also gets them all the polls.
Camille Elhassani, Doha, election day
The Los Angeles Times writes, "It's time for this to end." Yes it is. So much time spent over the last two years arguing over who should lead the US.
Now it's time to just get on with it. We need new blood in Washington, and maybe tomorrow will look better than today.
|Obama cast his vote early on Tuesday [AFP]
It could be an early night or not most of the big battleground states close within two hours of each other: Indiana, Virginia, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and North Carolina.
By taking more than a couple of these states plus all the ones we expect him to win, Barack Obama could lock down the 270 electoral votes needed to be the next President early on.
If John McCain does better than expected in these first big states, we could be in for a long night.
Slate’s John Dickerson warns those of us who work in TV not to count on one viewer tonight: "Barack Obama's aides say that he doesn't like to watch the election returns on television because he doesn't want to hear all the cable-TV chatter." Sometimes I don’t either.
Some precincts reported problems just after polls opened, mostly due to problems with machines or long lines. The Washington Post reports that election officials are expecting record turnout.
"The overriding question was how long voters may have to wait today." In one Washington DC suburb, an election official predicted an 11% increase from 2004.
Al Jazeera's Hebah Abdallah witnessed voters preparing for a long wait at a polling station in Northern Virginia.
People brought blankets, coffee, and even some brought their children to witness the most basic right in a democracy, the right of the people to select their leaders.
While some news analysis borders on predictions (or flat out predicts an Obama win), the candidates remain cautious.
Dan Balz of the Washington Post says McCain's aides, "make no secret of the fact that their candidate must pull off a sleight of hand to win."
Politico on the other hand, reports that Obama's team is superstitious: "Obama aides have forbidden themselves from discussing White House jobs – and the frantic scramble for those jobs – or even looking past Tuesday."
But even Karl Rove is predicting an overwhelming win for Obama. Maybe Obama’s barber should go ahead and look into new office space in the 20006 zip code.
(He told Al Jazeera in August that he'd move to Washington DC if Obama wins, so he can keep his number one client looking good).
The Wall Street Journal looks at what's facing the next president:
"Three economic challenges are apt to dominate the early days of the new presidency: mending the economy; reshaping the battered financial industry; and crafting a policy for China, America's biggest creditor and an economic rival." Kinda takes the celebration right out of the day.
Also, whoever wins today could move into the official Washington DC transition office at 12:01am Wednesday. If there is a flight to DC from Chicago around midnight, expect a few hundred people to be on it.
A brief look back
So what has happened in this campaign, other than the obvious.
Steve Schmidt, a senior McCain advisor, tells the New York Times what lots of us have been thinking, that the campaign finance system is dead.
A $2 billion presidential campaign was the last straw.
Now maybe congress will actually put some effort into parity in political campaigning, because getting elected shouldn't be about who has the most money.
In some countries, campaigns go into blackout periods before the Election. Not so in the US. Campaigning continues right up until the last polls close.
Todaym McCain goes out for last minute support in Colorado and New Mexico before going home to Phoenix.
Obama shakes voters’ hands in Indianapolis, Indiana before heading to his campaign party in Chicago.
Al Jazeera will have live Election Coverage from 22g to 10g Wednesday. We'll bring you the projections and views from around the world.
Sarah Brown, Chicago, one day to go
The longest, and certainly most expensive, election in US history is now at hand.
But while the candidates frantically zipped from state to state in the last full day of campaigning, walking the streets of downtown Chicago on Monday it seems on the surface that for most people it's still business as usual in the Windy City.
The city's nickname, incidentally, is not from the biting winds that sweep across the city during its notoriously cold winters, but apparently because of its local politicians' habits of talking a load of 'hot air', something I'm sure Obama detractors would agree with.
|Barack Obama is set to hold his post-election party in Chicago [AFP]
On Monday evening, tourists were still thronging the city's 'Magnificent Mile', a road festooned with stores catering to every whim, while local restaurants with outdoor patios did brisk business in the unseasonably warm weather.
But local news was saturated with election information – everything from where to vote to where to get free food if you vote, to what the weather will be like while you stand in line to vote.
On a more sombre note, ABC local news also reported that the national coastguard will patrol the shores of Lake Michigan and 22 officers from the Illinois national guard will be looking for "weapons of mass destruction" around Grant Park, where the Obama party is to take place.
What they would do if they found any, though, was not revealed.
And there is a buzz in the air, when you notice the amount of Obama t-shirts and hear snatches of breathless debate about the candidates from passers-by.
On Monday afternoon, walking around the beautiful, leafy, campus of the University of Chicago in the south of the city, scores of students could be seen in Obama t-shirts, hats and badges rushing in and out of classes.
I overheard two young politics students discussing enthusiastically where they should spend election night, one decrying the other when he said he had to get up early the next day for a class.
"We have to stay up, I mean, we're witnessing history!" exclaimed one.
He will most certainly not be the only one.
John Nichols, Doha, one day to go
When the late Paul Wellstone was running for his third Senate term in 2002, he confided to me a secret of winning elections in Minnesota.
"Always, always, remember the Somali community," said the senator, as we began a day of visits to shops, restaurants and community centers in the burgeoning immigrant areas of Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Since the early 1990s the Twin Cities have been home to one of the largest Somali immigrant communities in the United States, as an estimated 80,000 refugees have settled in cities that have historically been dominated by Norwegians, Swedes and Finns.
It is still important, when campaigning in Minnesota, to reach out to the Scandinavians, but as one of the closest US senate races in the country concludes, Wellstone's friend and potential successor, Al Franken, is taking his mentor's advice.
Running hard this year against Republican Norm Coleman, who won the Minnesota senate seat after Wellstone was killed in an October, 2002, plane crash, Franken has aggressively sought the Somali vote.
|Fighting in Somalia in remains a concern for
the community in the US [AFP]
It is a serious competition.
Coleman was the mayor of St. Paul as the Somali community took shape and grew in numbers.
He understands that Minnesota Somalis are well organised and politically engaged.
And he has reached out to its voters, co-sponsoring the "Somalia Stabilization and Reconstruction Act of 2007," an initiative developed by Wisconsin Democratic Senator Russ Feingold, the chairman of the Africa subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
But Franken, a sometimes controversial author and entertainer who is making his first race for elected office, and his supporters have worked hard to secure the Somali vote.
Polls completed prior to today's election show the Minnesota contest is very close.
The votes of members of the Twin Cities Somali community could decide it.
And because the Minnesota race is seen as critical one for Democrats - who hope to dramatically expand their narrow 51-49 Senate majority today - Somali-American voters could, by extension, play a definitive role in shaping the character of the next Congress.
When Franken was campaigning for the nomination of the Minnesota Democratic Farmer Labor Party (the local affiliate of the national Democratic Party) his campaign even produced a video featuring Busad Iman Kheyre, a Twin Cities social worker and businesswoman, explaining in her native language how members of Minnesota's Somali community could help elect Franken.
Franken has been getting a boost from Minneapolis Congressman Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to the US House, who campaigned in late October at a Somali-American Community event, where he encouraged the crowd to vote for Franken.
In part, he said, it was because of his concern that: "Senator Norm Coleman voted with President Bush almost always and that he hasn't done anything to advance peace in the Middle East or Somalia."
Franken has, as well, gained an endorsement from a popular Somali-American web magazine, Wardheer News.
Senator Coleman, like his Republican associates, voted against a number of social programmes that Somalis in Minnesota and their family depend on, or partially take advantage of.
There are no compelling reasons to believe that senator Coleman, if elected for a second term, will break ranks with the Republican agenda and advance issues that are so dear to the Somali community.
Another issue that is disconcerting to many voters is Senator Coleman's campaign, which has been marred by negative and personal attacks against his rival, similar to that of fellow party member, Senator McCain.
Both are using scare tactics and distorted wedge issues, while ignoring real issues that confront main street voters.
But his challenger, Al Franken, a passionate progressive Democrat, will, with the help of [the] Somali-American community, join the likes of Ted Kennedy, Joe Biden and, if recent leads hold, future president Obama, to reinvigorate Washington's commitment to meaningful social programmes.
The choice could not be clearer.
The Somali community's familiarity with Senator Coleman notwithstanding, Warhdeer News endorses his challenger, Al Franken, who is a better match with the aspirations of the Somali community in Minnesota.
John Nichols, a political writer at The Nation magazine, will be providing live analysis for Al Jazeera during our special US election coverage beginning at 22GMT on Tuesday, November 4.
John Nichols, Doha, one day to go
When he endorsed Barack Obama for president in mid-October, Colin Powell, the former US secretary of state, did more than merely cross a partisan divide.
Yes, of course, the headlines after Powell made his dramatic endorsement on NBC's "Meet the Press" highlighted the fact that one of the country's most prominent Republicans had given his backing to the Democratic nominee.
But the lingering phenomenon that Powell's endorsement created in Muslim-American communities across the United States has been far more profound.
Powell made what may be remembered as the campaign's most powerful statement regarding religious tolerance.
|Colin Powell's statement energised
"I'm also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say, and it is permitted to be said. Such things as; 'Well you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.'
"Well the correct answer is: 'He is not a Muslim, he's a Christian, he's always been a Christian.'
"But the really right answer is: 'What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?' The answer is 'No. That's not America.'
"Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she can be president? Yet I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion he's a Muslim and he might be associated with terrorists. This is not the way we should be doing it in America," said Powell.
"I feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine.
"It was a photo-essay about troops who were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and one picture at the tail-end of this photo essay was of a mother in Arlington Cemetery and she had her head on the headstone of her son's grave.
"And, as the picture focused in, you can see the writing on the headstone. And it gave his awards, Purple Heart, Bronze Star, showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death.
"He was 20-years-old. And then at the very top of the headstone, it didn't have a Christian cross, it didn't have a Star of David. It had a crescent and a star of the Islamic faith.
"And his name was Karim Rashad Sultan Khan. And he was an American, he was born in New Jersey, he was 14 at the time of 9/11 and he waited until he can go serve his counrty and he gave his life."
Even now, with Election Day just hours away, Powell's words resonate. The busy Muslim-Americans for Obama website is dominated by a "Thank You Colin Powell" link to the retired general's statement and the poignant image of Karim Rashad Sultan Khan's mother at his grave.
The embrace of Powell's statement is hardly surprising. In the closing weeks of the campaign, Republican John McCain's supporters have attacked Obama in increasingly harsh terms, creating a climate charged with anger and fear. The suggestion that Obama is a Muslim, and that this ought somehow to disqualify him from serious consideration, has been widespread.
For Muslim-Americans, it has been painful. But it has, as well, been empowering.
"I am the first Muslim Congressman," Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison explained in a pre-election interview with AlterNet, "and I have hit every Muslim community across this nation. And I can say that the effect of the smear campaign against the Muslim community has been to enliven it.
"The Muslim community across the nation is registered to vote, is running for office, is civically engaged. In my view [the community] is a rising political force."
That force, the Democratic congressman suggests, will in all likelihood benefit Obama.
The sad thing about the 2008 campaign, of course, is that the attacks on Obama have led him to be cautious about making a statement so powerful as that delivered by Colin Powell.
Neither Obama nor McCain have visited a mosque during the course of the long 2008 campaign – even though one of the largest mosques in the country is located on the edge of Toledo, a city both campaigns have come back to again and again in their fight for the battleground state of Ohio.
"It's true that [Obama] has not gone to any mosques. It is also true that McCain has not visited any mosques," says Ellison as the campaign closes. Political strategists may suggest that this is necessary in a country where an August, 2007, Pew Research Center for the People and the Press survey found that 45 per cent of respondents said they would be less inclined to cast a ballot for a candidate for any office who is Muslim.
But Ellison doesn't buy the argument. "[Just] because something is understandable doesn't mean that it's not a mistake. This is one of those situations," explained the Congressman. "Either candidate could successfully engage in Muslim communities without any political repercussions."
Ellison told me before last summer's Democratic National Convention that he was "still waiting for Obama to say, 'It happens that I am not a Muslim, but what I can't figure out is why anyone thinks that there is something wrong with being a Muslim.'"
Barack Obama could have made that statement.
But it was Colin Powell who did make it.
If Obama is elected president on Tuesday, he will have much work to do.
Some of that work will involve the healing of the deep divisions that linger from an ugly electoral season.
As he embarks upon that healing process, Obama would be wise to borrow some language – and some sentiment – from his most prominent Republican backer.