By Jeff Mason and Eric Johnson
CHICAGO (Reuters) - The crowd was smaller than it was four years ago, and the venue was indoors, but President Barack Obama's victory party early on Wednesday shared a theme with his 2008 election night: hope.
Despite a rough economy that dulled the glow of being America's first black president, Obama defeated Republican Mitt Romney in a hard-fought race for the White House and celebrated with confetti, hugs and a promise to represent everyone in the nation.
"Tonight, despite all the hardship we've been through, despite all the frustrations of Washington, I've never been more hopeful about our future," Obama said.
"I have never been more hopeful about America. And I ask you to sustain that hope," he told the cheering crowd in Chicago, his hometown.
Obama won the presidency in 2008 on the themes of "hope" and "change." But except for the final weeks of the campaign, he shunned those key words during his 2012 re-election effort in the face of Republican attacks on his economic stewardship and other issues.
With his robust victory, those attacks - at least from Romney - are now over. The president struck a conciliatory chord toward his opponent in his remarks.
"We may have battled fiercely, but it's only because we love this country deeply and we care so strongly about its future," he said. "In the weeks ahead, I also look forward to sitting down with Governor Romney to talk about where we can work together to move this country forward."
In 2008, Obama spoke to a crowd of some 240,000 people at Chicago's Grant Park, marking his historic victory over Republican John McCain. This year, he chose a convention center, McCormick Place, with seating room for 18,000.
The venue's capacity was not the only change from four years ago. Obama's daughters are taller, his hair is grayer, and the historic aspect of his election was less pronounced than it was in 2008. The crowd, however, was every bit as enthusiastic as four years ago.
"This solidifies something that started in 2008," said Karen Lehman, 59. "I feel so fantastic I can hardly describe it. This is a victory for all of these people here that President Obama was able to mobilize. They believed that he was moving in the right direction. I am thrilled."
People hugged each other, waved tiny American flags, danced, and pumped their firsts in the air. Prior to his victory, whenever a state was projected into Obama's column, supporters erupted in cheers.
Before his remarks, Obama was joined on stage by his wife, Michelle, and their two girls, Malia and Sasha. After they departed, he paused to listen to Stevie Wonder's song "Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I'm Yours" before starting to speak.
When he did, he praised his vice president, his campaign staff, and his family.
"For now, one dog's probably enough," he said to his girls, to whom he famously promised to get a dog if he won in 2008.
People in the crowd wiped tears from their eyes as Obama spoke. When he was finished, the Obama and Biden families came onto the stage and confetti fell down on the crowd. The families waved and eventually walked off the stage.
As his wife and daughters walked behind a blue curtain, Obama came back to the front of the stage, looked around, waved to the crowd again and mouthed, "Thank you."
(Editing by Fred Barbash and Will Dunham)