11/08/2016 15:27 EST | Updated 11/09/2017 00:12 EST

Canada's U.S. fixation reaches new heights as Americans choose new president

OTTAWA — A bitterly fought election campaign with no equal in modern American history is finally nearing its long-awaited conclusion — and the ballots are being counted.

Friendly and even-tempered is not how anyone would describe the 2016 presidential battle between Donald Trump, the brash businessman-turned-improbable Republican nominee, and his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.

U.S. Ambassador Bruce Heyman, who is hosting a viewing party at Ottawa's historic Chateau Laurier hotel next to Parliament Hill, predicted a smooth transition regardless of who wins.

The hotel ballroom was festooned with red, white and blue balloons and bunting, along with video screens showing live CNN coverage and a rolling Twitter feed.

Before guests arrived, Heyman paced the room talking to staff and surveying a large board showing a map of the U.S. Electoral College.

"Having gone through the day, watching Americans coming out all across the country in record numbers and seeing the large number of votes that were in early, I'm very relaxed," Heyman said in an interview.

"One of the things we have to be most proud of is the smooth transitions in our government."

Early results saw Trump claim victory in Kentucky, Indiana and West Virginia, while Clinton won Vermont. Polls also closed in North Carolina and Ohio, each expected to be among the night's most competitive races.

A winner likely won't emerge until after 11 p.m. ET.

Retired Lt.-Gen. Charles Bouchard, who commanded the NATO force that backed rebels fighting Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi, called it a historic night that Canadians would be watching closely.

"We wish them the best and we wish them a peaceful transition," said Bouchard, who severed at NORAD in Colorado Springs and other U.S. postings during his Canadian military career.

If Clinton can win either Florida or Pennsylvania, she's almost unstoppable. Trump likely needs Florida, along with Ohio, North Carolina, Arizona, and either Michigan or Pennsylvania. Neither of the latter two have voted Republican in decades.

Canada, of course, is far from a disinterested observer.

This thrashing nightmare of an election year has long since alarmed Mexico, Canada's other partner in the North American free trade bed and a primary target for Trump's sharp anti-trade, anti-immigration elbows.

But unlike Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, who has made no secret of his concern about a Trump presidency, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has striven to remain above the fray.

"Any responsible government is looking at what various consequences could be for Canadians, for the Canadian economy, of various measures or various policy positions that the potential next president of the United States — our largest trading partner — might take. That's simply responsible," Trudeau said late last week while waving off a question about Tuesday's outcome.

"I'm going to have faith in the American political process and reassure Canadians that I will work with whomever gets elected to continue to defend Canada's interests and grow our economy."

One Canadian official, who was not authorized to discuss the election publicly and so spoke on condition of anonymity, described a Clinton win as "same old, same old" when it comes to Canada's foreign-policy priorities.

Clinton will have her hands too full with domestic matters, to say nothing of a vitriolic political climate at home post-election, to make much progress or put much focus on bilateral relations.

"She's coming in with a lot of baggage attached," the official said. There's going to be so much animosity... She's going to be in a straitjacket."

Canadians tend to have unrealistic hopes about candidates that they like, said Laura Dawson of the Canada Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington.

"They liked Obama, but Obama was very measured in his willingness to expend political currency for Canada," Dawson said.

"I think it's going to be very similar under a Clinton government. She is going to be focusing on fixing a very broken domestic legislative system. That's what she is going to be focusing on: domestic politics."

Should Trump manage to pull out a victory, Canadians can take some measure of comfort in the fact Trump apparently has a lot of respect for Justin Trudeau and his international celebrity status, added the official, who has spoken to the Trump campaign about the prime minister.

"They think he's a showman.... They respect his success."

It helps matters that Trudeau has steadfastly refused to get drawn into the acrimony south of the border.

"You've noticed how careful our prime minister has been," the official said. "I think that was smart... You don't ever know."

Dawson said one of the biggest headlines for Canadians in the event of a Trump win — renegotiating or tearing up the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA — would in all likelihood never come to pass.

''All of those (companies) are going to be lined up saying, 'Are you kidding me? Do you know how much of our livelihood is dependent on open borders and trade between these three countries?' she said.

"If you were to impose a 30 per cent tariff on Mexico, the economic impact would be immediate, swift and would represent even more job losses for the United States."

Even so, the stakes remain high, said Perrin Beatty, president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.

"I would like us to be in a position where the discussion is going to be (about) how rapidly and how imaginatively can we deepen our partnership. Instead, what I think what we'll be looking at is, how do we maintain the progress we've been making?"

And it's not just about whether Clinton or Trump prevails to win the White House.

Tuesday's voting also will determine the composition of the Republican-dominated House of Representatives and of the Senate, which could conceivably see a majority of Democratic senators elected.