WASHINGTON - A down-to-the-wire presidential election headed toward a final resolution Tuesday night, with incomplete returns showing President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney locked in a race that remained too close to call.

Updated 6:37 p.m.

By Paul West
Tribune Washington Bureau (MCT)

WASHINGTON - A down-to-the-wire presidential election headed toward a final resolution Tuesday night, with incomplete returns showing President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney locked in a race that remained too close to call.

Election night had all the makings of a cliffhanger, with decisive ballots still being tallied in key battleground states. Given the tightness of the initial results, there was a possibility that the counting could stretch at least into Wednesday before a winner could be declared.

Shortly after polls closed 20 states were called for one candidate or the other, with Obama taking Illinois, Vermont, Rhode Island and Romney's home state of Massachusetts, among others. Romney carried a swath of Southern states, including Alabama, Oklahoma, Kentucky and South Carolina, as well as West Virginia and Indiana - the latter the first state to switch from Obama in 2008 back to the GOP.

But the election was riding on the results in no more than 10 battlegrounds, including Virginia, Florida and Ohio - all virtual must-wins for Romney and too close to call in the early going.

Both candidates delivered bullish remarks about their prospects, even as they were scrapping for every last advantage through media interviews that were beamed to battleground states and campaign events in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

During a visit to a local campaign office in his hometown of Chicago, the president congratulated Romney on “a spirited campaign.“ Obama said he was “confident we've got the votes to win, that it's going to depend ultimately on whether those votes turn out.“

Romney campaigned with running mate Paul Ryan in Ohio, the archetypal swing state that played a central role again this year. At one point, both members of the Republican ticket and Vice President Joe Biden were in Cleveland at the same time.

“You know intellectually I've felt we're going to win this and have felt that for some time,“ Romney told reporters aboard his campaign plane on a flight back to Boston after a final stop in Pittsburgh. “We left nothing in the locker room. We fought to the very end. And I think that's why we will be successful.“

But Romney acknowledged that his efforts could fall short. “The prospect of losing, I don't give that a lot of thought. I know it's possible,“ said the former Massachusetts governor. “There's nothing certain in politics, but I have, of course, a family and a life that are important to me, win or lose.“

For Obama, 51, gaining a second term during a weak economic recovery proved even more difficult than his historic selection as the nation's first African-American president.

The re-election drive bore only a faint resemblance to the “hope and change“ campaign that brought him to power in 2008, a time of deepening financial crisis and voter dissatisfaction after eight years of a Republican administration in Washington.

This time, Obama effectively abandoned his high-minded appeal in favor of a pre-emptive, bare-knuckled attempt to disqualify his Republican challenger.

Throughout the summer, the president and his super PAC allies unleashed a relentless attack on Romney's character, his reluctance to more fully disclose his personal taxes, his career as a private-equity executive at Bain Capital and his conservative stance on abortion rights and contraception. Independent fact-checkers judged more than a few of Obama's charges as whoppers, including his claim that Romney, as governor, outsourced jobs to China, and an inflated figure for the annual cost to seniors of Romney's Medicare overhaul plan.

In its overall thrust, the anti-Romney effort was similar to the ultimately successful campaign waged by President George W. Bush and the Republicans against Democratic challenger John Kerry in the tight 2004 election, which also returned a threatened incumbent to the White House. That election, the first of the post-9/11 era, revolved largely around national security and fighting global terrorism.

In this year's campaign, national security played no significant role at all. Republicans were unable to go after Obama with one of their most reliable anti-Democratic themes - weakness on defense policy. The president had essentially inoculated himself with a successful gamble: ordering the military mission that killed al-Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden in 2011.

Instead, the economy and jobs were the overwhelming concerns of American voters, with nearly 8 percent unemployment on Election Day a slightly higher rate than when Obama took office.

For months, the president's effort to distract attention from economic issues appeared to be working, thanks largely to the continued negative assault on Romney and a successful Democratic convention. The early September convention in Charlotte, N.C., was highlighted by Bill Clinton's persuasive defense of Obama's record and the former president's contention that a President Romney would merely revive the policies that had gotten the country into economic trouble in the first place.

Still, Romney rallied in the final month of the campaign, and found increasing success in framing the election as a classic referendum on the incumbent president's handling of his job. Romney never fully fleshed out his own plans for the next four years, but he managed to put Obama on the defensive over the president's failure to lay out a detailed second-term agenda.

The turning point, by all accounts, came Oct. 3, in Denver, when the two men met onstage for the first time. One of the largest TV debate audiences in history magnified the importance of the event, as did subsequent media coverage, virtually all of it highly favorable to Romney.

That night, Romney, a veteran of nearly 20 GOP primary debates, gave a commanding performance. To viewers, many of whom were getting their first close-up look at him, Romney came across as presidential. Obama, by contrast, appeared passive and, in the judgment of those polled afterward, lost the debate decisively. The event provided a major lift to Republican spirits, while doing little to turn around flagging enthusiasm for Obama from many of his 2008 supporters.

But Obama closed the gap in the final weeks of the campaign. An October surprise, in the form of one of the fiercest coastal storms to strike the mid-Atlantic in memory, allowed Obama to step away from the campaign grind and back into his role as president.

With polls showing one of the tightest presidential races ever, Obama gained ground with voters in the final days before the election, polls showed. Even Republicans said Hurricane Sandy had helped his re-election chances by denying Romney a final foothold.

Updated 6:05 p.m.

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama won the reliably Democratic Northeast, and Republican Mitt Romney secured his conservative base Tuesday night in a duel for the White House shadowed by a weak economy and high unemployment.

The critical battlegrounds with the key to victory were unsettled, Virginia, Ohio and Florida among them, with long lines in many locations after poll-close time.

Romney led in the popular vote, gaining 8.2 million votes, or 52 percent, to 7.5 million or 47 percent for Obama, with 5 percent of the precincts tallied.

Romney also held an early electoral vote advantage, 67-64, with 270 needed for victory.

The polls were still open in much of the country as the two rivals began claiming the spoils of a brawl of an election in a year in which the struggling economy put a crimp in the middle class dreams of millions.

Obama carried Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, Maine and Romney's home state of Massachusetts. Also, as expected, he won Delaware and Maryland as well as the District of Columbia and Illinois.

Romney had Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Kentucky and West Virginia in his column. He also won Indiana, a state Obama carried in 2008 but did not contest this year.