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WASHINGTON — Even for a nation that is, by now, used to drinking in political news through a fire hose, election night Tuesday could be a difficult one to absorb.

More than 500 House, Senate and governor’s races will be decided, if not by the end of the night, then over the course of the nail-biting days ahead as write-in ballots are counted and recounts are requested.

Beyond the individual results, the nation will be looking at the returns for answers to bigger questions: Was this election about President Barack Obama? How powerful a phenomenon is the Tea Party movement? How will the new Congress address the still-weak economy? What will it mean for the crop of likely 2012 Republican presidential candidates? Did anonymous campaign money sway the outcome?

Democrats made their last-minute appeals Monday. Michelle Obama headed to Las Vegas and Philadelphia as Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Vermont and former President Bill Clinton raced up and down the East Coast. Barack Obama hunkered down in the White House, conducting a few radio interviews and bracing for a rebuke that most pundits predict could be historic in its breadth.

On the eve of an election that could make him speaker of the House, Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, the minority leader, rallied Republicans in Cincinnati, praising as “patriots” the voters who have the “audacity to speak up in defense of freedom, the Constitution and the values of limited government,” according to excerpts released by his office.

Early decisions

Polls close in Kentucky first, at 6 p.m. Eastern time, so look to the races there for an early clue to how the evening is going. In the state’s Senate race, Rand Paul, the Republican and a Tea Party favorite, has been pulling ahead of Jack Conway, the Democrat. Also watch Rep. Ben Chandler, a Democrat who won re-election easily in 2006 and 2008, but is fighting to survive in Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District.

“If there is a dramatic falloff, Democrats are cooked,” Gov. Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania, a Democrat said.

The Tea Party

An analysis by The New York Times last month found that 138 candidates for the House and Senate claimed support from the Tea Party movement, and dozens of them could find themselves part of a congressional Tea Party caucus Wednesday and in a position to exert substantial influence on the Republican Party.

But assessing the movement’s success will not be a simple numbers game. If big-name Tea Party favorites lose to Democrats in places like Alaska, Colorado, Delaware or Nevada, the Republican Party could be left with a decidedly mixed impression of the movement and a renewed debate over whether Tea Party fervor made it harder — not easier — for Republicans to seize control of the Senate.