WASHINGTON -- Democratic and Republican party leaders put on their best game faces Monday, making eleventh-hour arguments on the eve of midterm elections that seem certain to curb, if not end, Democratic control of Congress.
"We're hoping now for a fresh start with the American people," said GOP Chairman Michael Steele. "If we don't live up to those expectations, then we'll have a problem in two years."
His Democratic counterpart, Tim Kaine, said he believes Democrats will do better than some experts have contended, arguing that Republicans have been obstructionists who "can't see beyond the end of their no."
How early will America know whether it's a Republican romp or if Democrats somehow minimized their damage? There should be plenty of clues this evening -- and long before bedtime.
Final results in some states might not be known for days. But trends could be evident from the Midwest and South -- especially from Indiana, Kentucky and West Virginia -- even before most of the nation has finished dinner.
Six states have polls that close at 7 p.m., and 16 more close by 8 p.m., featuring plenty of telling races in the East and Midwest. First up: Indiana, Kentucky, South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia and Vermont, offering the first hard evidence of just how big a night it's going to be for Republicans.
Not even their mothers expect the Democrats to gain ground. It's just a question of whether they fall back or over a cliff.
If the GOP can unseat Democratic Rep. Baron Hill in Indiana's always-hard-fought 9th District, for example, that's a good sign for the expected Republican takeover of the House. And if they can capture all three seats they've got an eye on in Indiana, that could well signal a GOP hurricane.
On the other hand, if Democrats hold their ground in Indiana, and if their Kentucky Senate candidate, Jack Conway, can beat Republican Rand Paul, it could be an early indication that GOP gains won't challenge the record books and that the tea party is serving weak brew.
Expectations are high that Republicans will pick up at least the 40 seats they need to retake control of the House after four years of Democratic rule. That should start in the Midwest.
In Ohio, where polls close at 7:30 p.m., six Democratic-held seats are in jeopardy. In Pennsylvania and Illinois, where polls close at 8 p.m., 10 more are at risk.
If Midwestern incumbents such Joe Donnelly in Indiana and John Boccieri in Ohio fall, Republicans are probably headed for huge gains nationwide. Measure Democratic resilience if the party manages to hold on to a pair of imperiled Georgia seats, and if Rep. John Spratt can win a new term in South Carolina.
Republicans should have an easy time holding onto one of their own vacant seats in Ohio, where former Republican Rep. Rob Portman is favored. But keep an eye on West Virginia, another 7:30 poll-closing state, where Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin and Republican millionaire industrialist John Raese are tussling over the seat long held by deceased Democrat Robert Byrd. A Republican victory there could keep alive GOP hopes of a majority.
Polls close at 10 p.m. in the most closely watched race of the night: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's battle in Nevada against tea party favorite Sharron Angle.
Even if Republicans show huge strength, the nation still could go to sleep tonight with unanswered questions about the makeup of the Senate: Polls don't close until 1 a.m. in Alaska, where it could take days or weeks to determine the winner of a three-way race for Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski's seat.
How long could the suspense drag on?
In 2006, it took until 8:30 p.m. the day after the election to determine that Democrats had taken control of the Senate from Republicans. And in 2008, it was nearly eight months after Election Day before it was determined that Democrat Al Franken had won Minnesota's Senate race, giving Democrats control of their 60th seat in the Senate, exactly the number needed to overcome a Republican filibuster.