By Nick Carey
COLUMBUS, Ohio (Reuters) - For a brief moment on Tuesday evening, it appeared that U.S. television networks might have called the presidential election too early for President Barack Obama as doubts crept in about whether the Democrat had won Ohio as TV networks projected.
But despite quibbling on conservative television network Fox News by veteran Republican strategist Karl Rove, and apparent hesitancy to accept defeat by Republican Mitt Romney's campaign, the numbers on the ground told the true story.
Obama won Ohio, a perennial battleground in the state-by-state contest that decides the president, by the reasonably comfortable margin of 2 percentage points.
After networks, including Fox News itself, had called the state for Obama, presenter Chris Wallace asked Rove if he believed Ohio's election had been decided, Rove replied: "No, I don't."
"I think this is premature," added the man widely considered the architect of President George W Bush's two election victories, including a last-minute get-out-the-vote drive in 2004 that helped Bush win Ohio.
Rove is the power behind American Crossroads, a "Super PAC", which raised tens of millions of dollars to help the Romney re-election effort.
He argued that much of the state's vote still remained uncounted and the two rivals were running at 49 percent each. His comment temporarily threw into doubt the result in Ohio and by extension the outcome of the whole presidential race.
In the end, Obama did not need the state to be reelected as he won other swing states like Colorado and Nevada.
Despite Rove's doubts, it turned out that Obama was not really in trouble in Ohio, where he campaigned often in recent months on the strength of the 2009 auto industry bailout he initiated which saved thousands of jobs in the state.
NO ROMNEY SURPRISE
Many votes were still to be counted in the Ohio counties that include the Democratic strongholds of Cleveland, Columbus, Toledo and Dayton when Rove raised his objection, which in fact made a Romney win statistically very unlikely.
As the drama played out on Fox, Ohio's Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted took the stage at the statehouse in Columbus and pointed to a large screen that showed less than 1,000 votes separating Obama and Romney. Husted emphasized that most of the votes yet to come in were from "urban areas".
While he avoided saying specifically that those areas tend to vote Democratic, Husted invited reporters to examine the results of past elections and "draw your own conclusions."
In 2008 Obama took just under 70 percent of the vote in Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland. On Tuesday, he took just under 69 percent. The story was the same for other urban Democratic strongholds.
So intense was the interest in which way Ohio voted that earlier in the night the secretary of state's web site spiked to 8,000 per second, causing it to crash periodically.
In the end, what appeared to resonate with many voters in Ohio, which has not voted for a losing presidential candidate since 1960, was the bailout of the auto industry, which supports an estimated one in eight jobs in the state.
One man who was affected was Dave Swogger, who works in security at Chrysler's Jeep plant in Toledo. He said he vote for Obama was prompted in part by a late, controversial TV advertisement from the Romney campaign claiming that Chrysler was shipping Jeep production to China. That was flatly denied by Chrysler.
"I didn't like that lie from Romney one bit," said Swogger, 38. "I voted for Obama because he saved my job. He saved the auto industry."
(Editing By Alistair Bell and David Storey)