In dark and cold, Americans cast first ballots

A woman is accompanied by her dog as she casts her vote on Nov 6, 2012 in South Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

FALLS CHURCH, Virginia - From a symbolic hamlet to a critical swing state neighbouring the halls of power in Washington to the storm-scarred streets of metropolitan New York, Americans rose early to cast ballots for Barack Obama or Mitt Romney.

Up and down the East Coast voters braved very cold weather in the pre-dawn darkness as they queued up to bring an end to one of the hardest-fought and most expensive election campaigns ever.

Facing them was a choice between two men with very different visions of how to get economically struggling America back firmly on its feet.

More than 100 people were already patiently waiting in line at the Falls Church community centre for more than half an hour when the basement gymnasium turned polling station threw open its doors at precisely 6 am (1100 GMT).

"The polls are open! Go on in!" the polling station manager declared.

That equivalent of a referee firing a starting gun echoed up and down the East Coast, with polling stations further west - in battleground states like Ohio that could determine the winner - due to follow suit later.

In this Washington suburb, blue tape on the sidewalk marked the line that Democratic and Republican campaign workers could not cross to solicit votes. Two dogs sat patiently for their owners to return from doing their civic duty.

Virginia, which helped put Obama into the White House in 2008 after favouring Republicans for years, is one of the so-called battleground states where the contest is so tight that it could swing the final national outcome.

Within 20 minutes of polls opening, dozens of voters were seen by AFP reporters waiting outside voting stations in northern Virginia, an early sign of enthusiasm in the race between Obama and Romney.

"It's going to be a higher than normal turnout for sure," said Romney campaigner Chris Redder as he distributed sample ballots to arriving voters in Falls Church indicating which Republican boxes they should tick.

"I consider this an important election," he said. "It's two visions of America - more personal responsibility versus more intrusive government, and pro-life versus what I'd say pro-abortion."

If Obama is re-elected, Redder told AFP, his policies would "damage the country" in ways that would take years to recover from.

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