TAMPA, Fla. (AP) - For the nation's largest and perhaps most influential swing state, election night was a slow grind of razor-thin, anxiety-inducing vote counting - no matter which side you were on.
President Barack Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney traded leads as the votes were tallied. With 85 percent of precincts reporting, the candidates were essentially tied and separated by just thousands of votes out of more than 7.4 million ballots cast.
A few key areas were still awaiting results, most notably Broward and Santa Rosa counties, the polar opposites of this diverse Florida. Broward is a large county in the liberal, southeastern part of the state and Santa Rosa is a smaller, conservative county, in the far western Panhandle near Alabama.
The close race was expected after months of candidate visits, campaign bitterness and some $130 million spent on TV ads. The state was worth 29 electoral votes.
Florida, with its diversity, wealth and political cache has long been seen as a toss-up by political experts. Obama won here in 2008, but since then, the state's unemployment and foreclosure rates have remained above the national average. Another win in Florida would all but assure Obama four more years in the White House, but the race was very tight.
At one point in the evening, the margin that separated the two candidates was less than 1,000 votes, reminiscent of the infamous 2000 election.
If the margin of victory is less than a half-percentage point, an automatic computer recount would be conducted. If the margin is less than a quarter-percent, a manual recount would be done.
The recount would not be as difficult as the lengthy one in 2000. The state no longer uses punch-card ballots, which became known for their hanging, dimpled and pregnant chads. All 67 counties now use optical scan ballots where the voters mark their selections manually.
Republican George W. Bush won the 2000 contest after the Supreme Court declared him the winner over Democrat Al Gore by a scant 537 votes.
In other Florida races, voters chose Sen. Bill Nelson to keep his seat in a race against GOP Rep. Connie Mack. Florida also picked seats for Congress; the Legislature; whether to retain three state Supreme Court justices; and voters decided on 11 state constitutional amendments.
Turnout appeared to be heavy, with long lines reported in many places, even though more than 4.5 million people out of nearly 12 million registered voters cast ballots early. There were reports of sporadic, but mostly minor problems at the polls Tuesday. One Florida elections office mistakenly told voters in robocalls the election was on Wednesday. Another office lost power for about 45 minutes.
Ashely Bass, 22, voted in her second presidential contest, choosing Romney. The Lee County resident in the southwest part of the state picked Republican Sen. John McCain four years ago.
"I see a lot of Bush in Romney and I really like him. The only thing I don't like is his ideas about Planned Parenthood. I am against abortion, but I am not against birth control," she said.
Others said they liked the president's recent leadership.
"I made my mind up when I saw Obama get that storm response out so quick," said retiree Raymond Tisdale, 77, of Port Charlotte. "I was thinking about voting for Romney, but he just flip flopped too much."
The former building contractor continued said he sees the economy improving.
"Obama had a lot on his plate when he started, like unemployment going up, but now it seems like it has turned in the other direction. We all need to make a living," he said.
Florida's voters are difficult to categorize. It's a transient state, the fourth-largest in the nation. One of every five residents is foreign-born and those born in the U.S. probably came from another state. There are New Yorkers, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, African-Americans and Haitians. There are Southern conservatives, soccer moms, wealthy same-sex couples and still wealthier Midwestern retirees. In rural pockets in the state's middle, there are poor farmers and even poorer farmworkers.
Political preferences break down loosely by region. North Florida is solidly conservative. South Florida generally votes Democratic. Then there's the Interstate 4 corridor, stretching from Tampa in the west to Daytona Beach in the east. Some have called it the most crucial swing region in the most crucial swing state in the nation.
It can't be said enough: Florida is a microcosm of the United States.
Because of this, Obama and Romney - and their wives, vice presidential picks and high profile political supporters - have held dozens of rallies over the last two years. It's also one of the reasons why Republicans chose Tampa as the site of its national convention this past August.
Kathy Wingard contributed to this report. Follow Tamara Lush on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tamaralush
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)