As many people remember from the year 2000, a presidential candidate can lose the nationwide vote and still win the election. The presidential vote is one that's decided state by state.
No matter who wins, the number of red and blue states on the electoral map will help determine the momentum that the winner takes to the White House. But several states, including Indiana, Nevada, North Carolina and Florida, are neither red nor blue this year — they're too close to call.
Indiana is traditionally considered the reddest of the Midwest states, favoring Republicans in 24 of the last 28 presidential elections. Since 1940, a Democrat has carried Indiana only once — in 1964. Four years ago, President Bush won a whopping 60 percent of the Indiana vote.
"I cannot recall an election cycle where this state has been up for grabs in the general election and therefore being paid attention to," says Marie Eisenstein, a political scientist at Indiana University-Northwest in Gary. She says the senator from neighboring Illinois, Barack Obama, has a chance to become the first Democrat to win the state in 44 years.
"This would be a huge coup for the Democrats, to be able to turn Indiana from a red state to a blue state," she says.
If Obama wins Indiana, it will be due at least in part to huge turnout in the one reliably Democratic county in the state, Lake County, which borders Chicago. Voters there, like Joanne Borrow of Gary, have been waiting two to three hours in line to vote early and make history.
"I'm ready for the Republicans to get out of the office. I'm ready to vote. I can't wait to vote," she says.
With the second-largest population in the state, a huge turnout in Lake County for Obama could offset lopsided margins for John McCain in rural counties in central and southern Indiana.
But Republicans are far from throwing in the towel. "The election's not happened yet," says Russ Volk, manager of the aptly named Conservative Cafe in Crown Point, about a dozen miles south of Gary and where coffee is served "right."
Volk says the seasoned Indiana GOP is mobilizing.
"I think the rest of the state ... [is] going to make more difference this time than ever before," he says. "Midstate, southern Indiana, I still think they're traditionalists."
Another factor to consider is that Hoosiers have a tradition of splitting tickets, voting for Democrats for offices like governor, senator and representative while voting for Republicans for president. That could work in the reverse this year, as Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels is expected to win re-election Tuesday. Some homes with Daniels yard signs have signs supporting Obama next to them.
In Las Vegas, the 60,000 members of the Culinary Workers Union are a force to be reckoned with at election time. Clester Nelson, 74, is one of the union's hundreds of canvassers. As he was setting out from the union hall Sunday, he said that electing Obama would be the fulfillment of a family prophecy.
"My grandfather ... was a slave, and when I was about 8 years old, he said, 'Son, maybe by the time you get to be an adult, they'll have a black president,' " Nelson recalls.
There are now more Democrats for Nelson to contact than there were just a year ago. Democrats have overtaken Republicans in voter registration by a margin of more than 100,000. Meanwhile, the state has been hit hard by the economic crisis. The unemployment rate is above the national average, and the state has the highest foreclosure rate in the country.
Nelson says that's on the mind of everyone he meets. "You bump into people [who] will tell you, 'I've got to move and I really don't know where I'm going to move because I don't have any money. I lost my job,'" Nelson says.
Las Vegas has always provided the mother lode of Democratic votes in Nevada, while Republicans hold sway in the state's rural counties. But McCain has his backers in the Las Vegas area, too. Some of his evangelical supporters spent Sunday afternoon gathered in a hotel ballroom south of the strip, listening to speakers including the Rev. John Knapp.
"Do every single thing that you can to make sure that the biblical values that this nation [was] founded on are pushed forwards in this next election," Knapp said.
What Craig and Scheryl Smith have been doing for McCain is praying. "Lord, please have mercy on us as a nation, and please have Mr. McCain be president," Craig Smith prayed Sunday.
"Our pastor likes to say that prayer is the work. You can go out and do all these hands-on things, but prayer is what is the real work," Scheryl Smith explained.
But leaving nothing to chance — or heaven — McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin, will each hold rallies in Nevada on Monday.
North Carolina has been a red state in each of the last seven presidential elections. If that changes this year, newcomers like Melissa Coleman will be part of the reason.
Coleman moved from Massachusetts to North Carolina earlier this year with her husband and kids, settling in a recently built subdivision in the sprawling suburbs of Raleigh — the nation's third-fastest-growing metropolitan area. She says most of her neighbors are equally new to the state, and they have brought some new political attitudes with them.
"The politics of North Carolina are changing dramatically," she says. "I mean, people are flocking in here from, you know, New England and pretty much Pennsylvania and up, so [that] we're actually considered a swing state is a pretty big surprise for me, for sure."
The county that includes Raleigh and its suburbs went for President Bush in the 2004 election, but polls suggest Obama has a double-digit lead in it now.
To overcome Obama's strength in fast-growing urban areas, McCain has to do well in rural communities and more established parts of North Carolina. And he has to motivate members of the Republican base, such as 75-year-old Correnn Watkins, who cast an early ballot for McCain last week.
"I'm a Southern Baptist, so I am conservative. In fact, we pray every night at 9 for the nation and that McCain is elected," Watkins says.
Statewide polls show the North Carolina race as too close to call, so the number of newcomers who vote versus the number of longtime residents may determine whether Watkins' prayers are answered.
The math in Florida is simple: Democrats usually carry South Florida; Republicans dominate the north. The central part of the state — what's called the I-4 corridor — is the battleground where elections are decided.
Democrats have registered twice as many new voters this year as Republicans and hold a 650,000-voter edge statewide. The question is: How many of these new voters will turn out on Tuesday?
It's a close race in Florida, but Diane Hansborough, who supports McCain, says she's not worried about the polls.
"No, you have to keep fighting and you have to go out, you have to knock on doors," she says. "You have to get people as much as you can to understand how bad it would be if we get Obama. And I firmly believe that."
In Florida, 1 out of every 4 voters is older than 65. McCain has enjoyed some of his strongest support among senior citizens, but recent polls suggest it's eroding. Among the factors cited: the worsening economy and his selection of Palin as his running mate.
"Sometimes, I look at McCain and I like him, but I worry because his health is not the best and his age isn't," says Helen Rutledge, a retiree who lives in Boca Raton. "And I don't think an inexperienced little girl from Alaska should step into the presidency."
Because it's Florida, all eyes will be watching for voting snags Tuesday. Expect plenty of lawyers at the polls.
— By David Schaper in Indiana, Ina Jaffe in Nevada, Adam Hochberg in North Carolina and Greg Allen in Florida