At the Obama campaign field office in Chicago, volunteers work the phones. (Daniel Acker, Bloomberg )
MADISON, Wis. — The chanting of "four more years!" echoed through the streets before dawn, the cold air carrying the sound across downtown blocks. It was a cry for morale, for warmth, for the TV crews already doing stand-ups — for the last time for this president.
That is how it started, the final day of what President Obama always says is his final campaign, at a Monday morning rally aimed at firing up fans before voting starts. It was due to end in the dark some 18 hours later, at a quieter tarmac back in his hometown of Chicago.
In between was the steady output of a campaign barreling toward election day — miles to travel, voters to reach, interviews, more attacks, more music, famous faces and pleas. For this campaign, which always felt like a "not-quite-as-good-as-the-original" movie sequel, it felt like an end.
INTERACTIVE: Predict a winner
"I just said to the president, it's like the end of a long-running series and all the characters are coming back," said David Axelrod, the president's longtime advisor, as Obama took the stage at the rally in Madison.
The president spoke in the shadow of the Wisconsin Capitol, a place that like much of the country is fractured and now fatigued by bitter political divisions. The race was close here, as it was in Ohio, Virginia, Iowa — almost everywhere Obama and GOP rival Mitt Romney had fought it out for months.
Improbably, Vice President Joe Biden was talking about bipartisan collaboration after the campaign ends.
"When this election is over," Biden said in Roanoke, Va., "we've got to come together in the same way I've watched the president bring everyone together in the aftermath of Sandy, the storm."
But in the Obama for America hierarchy, there were more pragmatic assumptions about how things would probably proceed in a second Obama term.
The campaign deployed hundreds of volunteers to Wisconsin, even diverting them from Iowa, in hopes of sending a message with a win in the home state of Rep. Paul D. Ryan, architect of the House Republican budget and the GOP nominee for Biden's job.
"We live in a divided country," Obama advisor David Plouffe told reporters, explaining for the umpteenth time why the Obama team had always expected a close race.
Still, the flat observation was remarkable, particularly on a day full of reminiscing about where and how the president started. The man who campaigned four years ago promising to end the partisan battles was now largely just promising to win them.
That undeniable shift has hung over the campaign from Day One. It could never be the "lightning in a bottle," adrenaline-fueled movement of 2008, the campaign argued. But it never quite grew into something else, either.
Encumbered by the infrastructure and duties of the White House, the campaign never settled into a rhythm. There were many interruptions, long sluggish stretches, summits with foreign leaders, the attack on Benghazi, super storm Sandy.
Throughout it all, the campaign was negative, expensive and close.
So it was no surprise that as it ended, aides and advisors were nostalgic about 2008, not 2012.
Plouffe, Axelrod and former Press Secretary Robert Gibbs held court on the sidelines in Madison. They laughed about what it was like when the president was just another candidate, calling high school kids in Iowa from a charter airplane to ask for their support.
"They said, 'Can you call me back? I'm in class right now,'" a chuckling Axelrod told reporters. Axelrod and Plouffe wore their matching 2008 campaign fleece jackets. Bruce Springsteen, another early supporter, performed behind them.
As the final hours passed, aides tracked time with a countdown by rallies — Concord, N.H.; Hollywood, Fla.; Cincinnati; Madison; Columbus, Ohio; and Des Moines, where Obama, joined by First Lady Michelle Obama, was scheduled to stage the final campaign event.
There was clear exhaustion. A staffer admitted she slept in her clothes. Others imagined about life after the campaign. The speechwriting team continued its shaving strike.
Still, there were moments even hardened campaign warriors couldn't resist. They too snapped shots of the president singing along as Stevie Wonder sang the campaign favorite "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" in a Cincinnati gymnasium.
Axelrod interrupted his impromptu news conference to relish a moment — the sound of an acoustic guitar, a harmonica and the Boss singing "meet me in the land of hope and dreams."
"Can we just take a moment to note the fact that we're standing in a beautiful day and we've got the poet laureate of American music up there singing songs about Americans, working folks?" Axelrod said. "What could be better?"
Winning, of course, is the answer for Obama supporters. And if not a victory, then at least, an end.
Christi Parsons in Chicago and Michael A. Memoli in Roanoke contributed to this report.