By NANCY BENAC
WASHINGTON (AP) - Mitt Romney pulled the plug on his first presidential run on Feb. 7, 2008, and immediately served notice that he wasn't about to fade away. "I hate to lose," he told conservatives that day.
Barack Obama wasn't paying too much attention to Romney just then. The first-term Illinois senator was in a bare-knuckled brawl with Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination and, if he got past the New York senator and former first lady, was calculating his odds of defeating Republican Sen. John McCain.
Four and a half years later, Romney is not to be discounted. He and Obama are in a down-to-the-wire race for the White House that has split the nation down the middle after a long, hard slog that upended conventional wisdom time and again, smashed campaign spending records and pushed the limits of saturation politics.
After all those ads, nasty and nastier, was it any wonder that a 4-year-old's heaving sobs about hearing too much of "Bronco Bama and Mitt Romney" went viral in the campaign's closing days?
The arc of this campaign has taken the nation from a flavor-of-the-month Republican primary campaign, captured in a seemingly never-ending series of GOP debates and buzzwords like "9-9-9" and "oops," to a general election race that keeps circling back to the economy after detours into foreign policy, social issues and even the employment status of Big Bird.
Along the way, Campaign 2012 has brought us a rambling one-sided conversation by Clint Eastwood at the GOP convention, a fresh dose of Bill Clinton's charms at the Democratic convention, and a jarring intrusion from a superstorm named Sandy. Celebrity businessman Donald Trump had a couple of cameos, as did Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke, who railed against Romney's health care policies, and Scott Van Duzer, the Florida pizza man who hoisted Obama off the floor in a giant bear hug.
Now, on Election Day's brink, with 27 million people already having voted, Obama appears to have more options than Romney for reaching the 270 electoral votes that will clinch victory. But half of Americans think the country is on the wrong track, and almost as many disapprove of how Obama is handling his job.
It's easy to forget there was a time when Rep. Michele Bachmann was the surprise breakout from the GOP primary field. To be replaced by Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Then pizza executive Herman Cain and his 9-9-9 tax plan. Then former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Then former Sen. Rick Santorum.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Trump and other GOP notables all did the tease but never joined the Republican speed-dating scene. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman tried to go steady but just couldn't get noticed.
Romney's GOP rivals hurled everything they had at the former Massachusetts governor as Obama silently cheered them on from the White House. Santorum labeled Romney a snob. Gingrich called him a liar. Huntsman went with "perfectly lubricated weather vane." Perry contributed "vulture capitalist."
The most memorable moment to come out of 20 GOP debates may have been Perry's "oops" - when he tried to shrug off his inability to remember the third government agency that he'd like to abolish. It became a metaphor for his short-lived campaign.
Through it all, Romney, who had never completely stopped running after his loss in 2008, hung tight, spent liberally and refashioned his image from that of a Massachusetts moderate into a candidate with a "severely conservative" approach to governing and a knack for turning around failing enterprises.
He made more than his share of gaffes, feeding into critics' efforts to paint him as an elitist with remarks like "corporations are people" and "I like firing people." In the latter case, Romney was talking about the importance of people being able to choose among different health insurance policies, but his opponents used a shorthand version against him in a campaign that kept fact-checkers working overtime from start to finish.
The GOP primaries were a roller coaster: Santorum won a squeaker in Iowa. Romney claimed New Hampshire. Gingrich prevailed in South Carolina. Romney claimed Florida, spending five times what Gingrich did to flatten the competition, and Nevada. Santorum won in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado.
It was only a matter of time until Romney finally piled up enough delegates to clinch the nomination on May 29 in Texas. For practical purposes, by then the general election campaign had been going on for months.
For all the words spoken, money expended and attention devoted to the Republican primary fight, the most important thing that happened in the presidential race may have been what wasn't happening at that time: Obama did not draw a Democratic opponent.
For decades, incumbents who've faced either no primary challenge or an insignificant one have been re-elected, while those who've had a serious challenge have not.
"Romney had to move right to win his primary's nomination and Obama didn't have to move left to win his," says Dan Schnur, a former Republican adviser who teaches political science at the University of Southern California. "So while Romney was talking about contraception and immigration, Obama was bragging about expanding offshore oil drilling, cutting the corporate tax and using military drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan."
While the Republicans were busy with their infighting, Obama made a decision in February that would be key to staying competitive over the nine-month march to Election Day: He reversed course and gave his blessing to the big-money independent fundraising groups that he had previously assailed as a "threat to democracy" because of the potentially corrupting influence of money on politics. The candidate who once told supporters to "fight their millions of dollars with millions of voices" decided voices were great, but he'd like those millions of dollars, too.
The money rolled in. Before it was over, the two sides and their allies had spent in excess of $2 billion.
With no primary opponent to worry about, Obama got an early start on softening up his opponent for the fall. One TV ad accused Romney of failing to stand up to "the voices of extremism" in his party. In another, a steelworker called Romney a "job destroyer" and compared his former private equity firm to a "vampire" that sucked the life out of companies.
The cumulative effect was reflected in polls showing that voters saw Obama, not Romney, as the candidate who best understood the concerns of the middle class.
From Inauguration Day, Obama knew it would be hard to live up to the high expectations set during the heady days of his 2008 "hope and change" campaign to become the nation's first black president.
A few weeks into his presidency, he took stock of a country in economic crisis and acknowledged: "You know, I've got four years. ... If I don't have this done in three years, then there's going to be a one-term proposition."
By this summer, Obama had both the burden and blessing of a record to run on. The economy was sputtering along but hardly robust. The president's favorability ratings were higher than Romney's. But his job approval numbers hovered below 50 percent. The jobless rate remained above 8 percent, with each monthly unemployment report driving home that statistic anew.
If Obama's glass was half-full, Romney's was half-empty - actually, almost drained. "It's another hammer blow to the struggling middle-class families of America," Romney said when the jobs report came out in August. He spoke from Nevada, where the economic picture was particularly grim.
Obama played up 29 straight months that private employers had added jobs and surrounded himself at the White House with middle-class families making progress. "Those are our neighbors and families finding work," Obama said. "But, let's acknowledge, we've still got too many folks out there who are looking for work." No economic recovery since World War II had been weaker.
So the two candidates headed in, and out, of their nominating conventions wielding the same campaign arguments they'd been making all year, and still running about even in their support from voters. But Obama had the edge on another important yardstick:
Asked who they thought would win, voters went with Obama hands down.
Romney had a rough September: His response to the deadly U.S. consulate attack in Libya hit a sour note. The release of a secretly recorded video that caught him saying that 47 percent of Americans consider themselves victims fed into impressions that Romney wasn't looking out for ordinary Americans. The race started to feel like it was slipping away from him.
October's series of three campaign debates offered Romney his last, best chance to change the dynamic. And did it ever.
Romney turned in a commanding performance in the first debate, while Obama was lackluster and disengaged. The contrast was startling, and it reinvigorated the Republican candidate and his supporters.
"I had a bad night," Obama conceded, and he upped his game for the next two debates. That was enough to satisfy nervous Democrats that their candidate was truly in it to win it. But Romney still was feeling the energy when a most unlikely October surprise upended both sides' game plans in the home stretch of the campaign.
Hurricane Sandy roared up the East Coast and barreled ashore on a destructive path that temporarily overshadowed all else. It gave Obama a chance to jump into action as commander in chief and left Romney struggling to strike the right tone. At week's end, the final jobs report before Tuesday's election gave one last economic snapshot, showing the U.S. adding a solid 171,000 jobs and more than a half-million Americans joining the workforce. But the jobless rate was still higher than when Obama took office.
Said Obama: "We've made real progress."
Countered Romney: "This is not a time for America to settle."
For every argument the candidates made in person in their frenzied final days of campaigning, their messages played out many times over in an unending stream of political ads targeting voters in the nine battleground states that will determine which candidate ultimately gets to 270 electoral votes.
More than 915,000 presidential campaign ads have aired since June 1, 45 percent more than over the same period in 2008, according to a report by the Wesleyan Media Project. Those ads aired in far fewer states this year, meaning a smaller number of people have been targeted by a far larger advertising onslaught.
People like Paris Hilliard, 24, who turned out for an Obama rally in Springfield, Ohio, on Friday, and thinks Obama's on the right track.
"I knew it wasn't going to be an overnight fix," he said.
Not far away, 75-year-old Walter Myers said he knows far too many people looking for work to believe the improving statistics on joblessness.
On his chest was a sign: "Nobama."
Associated Press writers Julie Pace and Kasie Hunt in Washington, Beth Fouhy in New York and Ann Sanner in Springfield, Ohio, contributed to this report.
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