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21 moments that defined the campaign and America

By Halimah Abdullah, CNN
November 6, 2012 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The presidential election has provided a roller coaster of pivotal moments
  • The collection of these moments could help decide the next president
  • From "you didn't build that" to "fire people," verbal missteps have haunted the candidates
  • On November 6th, you decide.

Washington (CNN) -- Remember Clint Eastwood's empty chair? Romney's Etch A Sketch moment? Obama's disastrous first debate?

The 2012 presidential race has been filled with stomach-clenching gaffes, dumb tactical goofs, nail-biting close calls and, of course, Big Bird.

But, along the way, it has also given American voters insight into the personalities and priorities of the men who would be president.

Will the next president have a fire in his belly? Or will he get caught behind closed doors dissing nearly half of the electorate? Does it matter that he thinks "you didn't build that?" Or is it OK that he likes "to fire people?"

But today is Election Day. No more polls. No more debates. The decision is now in the hands of the voters.

Here's a look back at some of President Barack Obama's and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's biggest moments in this political thrill ride:

Romney likes 'to fire people' | January 9, 2012  Romney likes 'to fire people' | January 9, 2012
Romney likes 'to fire people' | January 9, 2012Romney likes 'to fire people' | January 9, 2012

Romney likes 'to fire people' | January 9, 2012:
Romney's comment that he "likes being able to fire people" brought immediate attacks from his rivals and even a mocking ringtone. The candidate later told the Wall Street Journal that it was one moment that makes him "try and be a little more careful in what I say."

 War on women | January-March   War on women | January-March
 War on women | January-March War on women | January-March

War on women | January-March:
A federal mandate requiring religious institutions to offer contraception insurance coverage to employees sparks a "war on women" fight between Democrats and Republicans. The gender wars, women are more than half of the electorate, bled into congressional hearings, the campaigns and talk radio.

Etch A Sketch | March 21, 2012  Etch A Sketch | March 21, 2012
Etch A Sketch | March 21, 2012Etch A Sketch | March 21, 2012

Etch A Sketch | March 21, 2012:
Senior Romney aide Eric Fehrnstrom caused quite a row when he said on CNN's "Starting Point' that the fall campaign is "like Etch A Sketch. You can shake it up and we start all over again." The statement would haunt the Romney camp for the rest of the campaign as both his primary challengers and the Obama team pounced on the statement as proof of Romney's flip-flopping on issues.

Presumptive nominee | April 10, 2012  Presumptive nominee | April 10, 2012
Presumptive nominee | April 10, 2012Presumptive nominee | April 10, 2012

Presumptive nominee | April 10, 2012:
Romney became the presumptive nominee after his closest rival, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, suspended his campaign. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas continued their long-shot bids, but both would drop out by the convention.

DREAM Act-lite | June 15, 2012  DREAM Act-lite | June 15, 2012
DREAM Act-lite | June 15, 2012DREAM Act-lite | June 15, 2012

DREAM Act-lite | June 15, 2012:
In an election-year policy change, the Obama administration announced it will stop deporting young illegal immigrants who entered the United States as children if they meet certain requirements. Critics called the move a cynical ploy for Latino voters, while supporters heralded it as a step to institute a key portion of the DREAM Act.

Obamacare upheld | June 28, 2012  Obamacare upheld | June 28, 2012
Obamacare upheld | June 28, 2012Obamacare upheld | June 28, 2012

Obamacare upheld | June 28, 2012:
The U.S. Supreme Court upholds the Affordable Care Act, Obama's signature health care reform legislation and a law that cost both he and congressional Democrats tremendous political capital. The Obama campaign saw the move as a tremendous legal victory; the Romney campaign vowed to work to dismantle parts of the law it doesn't like.

Romney's overseas trip | July, 2012  Romney's overseas trip | July, 2012
Romney's overseas trip | July, 2012Romney's overseas trip | July, 2012

Romney's overseas trip | July, 2012:
Despite his earlier pledge to watch what he says, Romney made verbal gaffes in questioning London's ability to host the Olympics to angering Palestinians by suggesting Israel's culture played a role in its economic success. The ensuing fallout lent a disastrous air to the remainder of his trip to Europe and the Middle East.

'You didn't build that' | July 13, 2012  'You didn't build that' | July 13, 2012
'You didn't build that' | July 13, 2012'You didn't build that' | July 13, 2012

'You didn't build that' | July 13, 2012:
When Obama told a crowd in Roanoke, Virginia "if you've got a business, you didn't build that; somebody else made that happen," the comment set off a chorus of cries from conservatives and Republican-leaning business owners. Obama later said he regretted the "syntax" of his comment. However, the phrase also became a rallying cry for GOP faithful, sparked campaign ads and became a new catchphrase -- "We built it" -- emblazoned on T-shirts, bumper stickers and signs.

Biggest lead | August 8, 2012  Biggest lead | August 8, 2012
Biggest lead | August 8, 2012Biggest lead | August 8, 2012

Biggest lead | August 8, 2012:
Just weeks before the Democratic and Republican national conventions and following Romney's verbal slip-ups abroad, Obama opened up his widest lead against the GOP presidential hopeful in the CNN Poll of Polls, 49%-43%.

Picking Paul Ryan | August 11, 2012  Picking Paul Ryan | August 11, 2012
Picking Paul Ryan | August 11, 2012Picking Paul Ryan | August 11, 2012

Picking Paul Ryan | August 11, 2012:
Romney gave his campaign a boost and thrilled conservatives when he chose Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate. The 42-year-old congressional budget hawk is the first member of Generation X named to a presidential ticket.

Eastwood's empty chair | August 30, 2012  Eastwood's empty chair | August 30, 2012
Eastwood's empty chair | August 30, 2012Eastwood's empty chair | August 30, 2012

Eastwood's empty chair | August 30, 2012:
Actor and director Clint Eastwood's baffling monologue to an empty chair at the Republican National Convention caused no short amount of head scratching, late night talk show jokes and social buzz. His chair routine also upstaged Romney, who gave his convention speech later that night.

Bill Clinton's speech | September 5, 2012  Bill Clinton's speech | September 5, 2012
Bill Clinton's speech | September 5, 2012Bill Clinton's speech | September 5, 2012

Bill Clinton's speech | September 5, 2012:
Speaking of upstaging, former president Bill Clinton's energetic speech at the Democratic National Convention thrilled party faithful and, in many ways, upstaged Obama's own more subdued address.

Benghazi attacks | September 11, 2012  Benghazi attacks | September 11, 2012
Benghazi attacks | September 11, 2012Benghazi attacks | September 11, 2012

Benghazi attacks | September 11, 2012:
When U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three others were killed in Benghazi, the subsequent fallout led to an administration apology and was fuel during the presidential debates. Republicans, including Romney, criticized the administration's initial blame for the attack (mobs angered by an anti-Muslim movie) and for failing to properly recognize the security threat in the region. The administration pointed to incomplete intelligence reports for its early remarks.

The 47% | September 17, 2012  The 47% | September 17, 2012
The 47% | September 17, 2012The 47% | September 17, 2012

The 47% | September 17, 2012:
In one ill-fated fundraiser, Romney managed to offend Palestinians, Latinos and nearly half of American voters, some of the same people he's counting on for support at the polls. A surreptitious recording made during a May 17 private fundraiser at the home of Sun Capital executive Marc Leder was leaked to the media and included, among other comments, Romney refering to the government-assistance dependent "47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what." Romney immediately dropped in the polls.

Obama's debate disaster | October 3, 2012  Obama's debate disaster | October 3, 2012
Obama's debate disaster | October 3, 2012Obama's debate disaster | October 3, 2012

Obama's debate disaster | October 3, 2012:
Obama blew it in the first presidential debate by failing to actively engage Romney on key points and looking down, as if he was bored or annoyed. His lethargic debate performance was criticized by politicos and late night television hosts alike. Meanwhile, Romney's apologies to Big Bird that he would trim funding to PBS led to Internet memes and even a Million Muppet March on the National Mall. Still, Obama immediately dropped in the polls.

Romney's comeback | October 9, 2012  Romney's comeback | October 9, 2012
Romney's comeback | October 9, 2012Romney's comeback | October 9, 2012

Romney's comeback | October 9, 2012:
Following Obama's disastrous first debate performance, Romney leapt ahead of Obama in the CNN Poll of Polls for the first time in the campaign, 48%-47%. The move signaled a tightening of the race and a clear indication that the candidates would remain neck and neck until the very end.

'Binders full of women' | October 16, 2012  'Binders full of women' | October 16, 2012
'Binders full of women' | October 16, 2012'Binders full of women' | October 16, 2012

'Binders full of women' | October 16, 2012:
In the second debate, Romney's comments about using "binders full of women" while Massachusetts governor to help diversify his cabinet led to Internet quips and criticism. Obama, on the other hand, gave a much livelier performance in this debate.

'Bayonets and horses' | October 22, 2012  'Bayonets and horses' | October 22, 2012
'Bayonets and horses' | October 22, 2012'Bayonets and horses' | October 22, 2012

'Bayonets and horses' | October 22, 2012:
In the third presidential debate, an energized Obama proved once again that he was full of sharp tongued-snark when he lashed Romney by explaining the military uses fewer "bayonets and horses." The line was an attempt to paint Romney as someone who is out of his depth on the nation's military strategies.

Voting early | October 25, 2012  Voting early | October 25, 2012
Voting early | October 25, 2012Voting early | October 25, 2012

Voting early | October 25, 2012:
Obama became the first presidential candidate to vote early, and his stop at a polling center in Chicago reflected his campaign's strategy to get suppoters to cast ballots ahead of November 6.

Superstorm Sandy | October 29, 2012  Superstorm Sandy | October 29, 2012
Superstorm Sandy | October 29, 2012Superstorm Sandy | October 29, 2012

Superstorm Sandy | October 29, 2012:
Sandy slammed into the East Coast killing more than 100 people, leaving millions without power and devastating the homes and property of thousands of others. In the storm's aftermath, both candidates halted campaigning and tread carefully in the days that followed so as to not politicize the devastation. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's praise of the Obama administration's handling of post-storm efforts further complicated the Romney camp's campaigning following the storm.

America votes | November 6, 2012:
After billion of dollars, thousands of ads and years of campaigning, America finally gets its chance to decide.

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