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Obama narrowly leads in Florida, according to early results

With thousands of Floridians still lined up to vote, the presidential race in the nation’s largest battleground state is as close as can be, according to exit polls showing that President Obama might have an edge.

The president leads Republican Mitt Romney 50 to 49 percent in Florida, according to Edison Research’s exit poll of 4,172 voters. The poll results are tentative and will be updated later in the evening.

Early vote returns for the state seesawed between Obama and Romney ever since the polls closed at 8 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.

Obama’s strength: Liberal Southeast Florida, where early vote returns show the president nursing a double-digit lead, according to exit polls and early votes. For the first time ever, a Democratic presidential candidate won absentee ballots — typically a Republican strength — in Miami-Dade County, with Obama eking out a 382-vote margin.

But Obama’s position isn’t solid. His lead in the exit polls is well within the error margin of the poll. And precincts in the Panhandle, a heavily conservative area, closed at 8 p.m. EST, around the time the initial exit polls were released.

Also, the exit polls and the early returns indicate that Obama isn’t doing as well as he did in 2008 in Florida, which he won by fewer than 3 percentage points.

If Romney loses Florida, he likely loses his chance of unseating Obama.

Romney’s strength: The economy — the top issue for more than 60 percent of the Florida electorate, according to exit polling. Of these economy-first voters, Romney beats Obama by 10 percentage points.

Romney also persuaded some voters that, like Obama four years ago, he is the candidate who can bring about change.

“We need a better change,” said Samantha Gentile, a 20-year-old independent who voted Tuesday at St. Gregory’s Church in Boca Raton.

“We need an economic change,” Gentile said. “We need jobs.”

Gentile’s remarks stood out, in part, because of the T-shirt she wore that openly advertised her support of gay marriage — which Romney opposes. Gentile said she also favors abortion rights, while Romney is opposed.

The exit polls indicated that Gentile was in the minority for those in her age group. Obama carried young voters, while he lost older voters to Romney, the exit polls showed.

Obama draws strong support among Hispanic voters, beating Romney 60-39 percent, the poll showed. Romney, meanwhile, is ahead with non-Hispanic white voters.

It will take hours for a final winner to be clear — and it could even take days.

In Miami-Dade, voters will remain in line in some precincts until well past midnight.

The close race could easily trigger a recount under Florida law, which automatically kicks in when any race is decided by a margin of one-half of one percent or less.

If 9 million people vote in Florida — a plausible figure, given reports of heavy turnout around the state — that means there could be a recount if the presidential vote is decided by 45,000 votes or less.

In a recount, all ballots are submitted again into the tabulating machines to recount the votes. If the recount yields a margin of one-quarter of one percent or less, the local canvassing boards must then perform a manual recount to examine so-called “undervotes” and “overvotes” — ballots that recorded no vote for president, or multiple votes for president.

Any recount must be completed within nine days from the day it is ordered by the Secretary of State. However, state law also says any recounts must be completed within 12 days of Election Day.

But, just as in the 2000 recount, there are tensions between the state and federal law: Elections officials still must collect absentee ballots cast overseas for some 10 days after Election Day. So overseas ballots could trickle in through Nov. 16, with a recount deadline of Nov. 18.

In 2008, more than 97,000 absentee ballots were cast by overseas Florida voters.

For those who have blotted it from their memories: The 2000 contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore was decided by just 537 votes in Florida.

Tuesday night, at the Stanley Axlrod UTD Towers, nearly 500 people stood in a line that snaked off the property, onto Brickell Avenue and back onto the property.

For some Brickell voters, it was deja vu all over again. The two precincts that vote there, 569 and 995, were among the last to close in Miami-Dade County in 2008.

Alex Trench, 27, waited nearly four hours to get his ballot. He arrived at the polling place at 6:45 a.m., only to find 200 people already in line.

“I’ve never been more excited to get to work,” said Trench, who works in construction, after casting his vote for Obama.

Obama’s campaign has also succeeded in bringing out new voters, like Diana Del Castillo, 31, a native of Colombia who recently became a U.S. citizen.

An independent, she said she voted for Obama not because of immigration but because of news reports about how Romney, years ago, strapped the family dog Seamus in his carrier to the roof of the family car on a vacation.

“If he doesn’t care about animals, will he care about people?” she asked.

Miami Herald staff writers Amy Sherman and Kathleen McGrory contributed to this story.