(Recasting with first election returns)
By Marty Graham
SAN DIEGO, Feb 11 (Reuters) - A Democrat seeking to become San Diego's first Hispanic mayor was trailing his Republican rival on Tuesday in their race to succeed ex-Mayor Bob Filner, who resigned amid a hail of sexual misconduct allegations, early election results showed.
Voters in California's second-most populous city appeared headed for a return to Republican leadership as City Councilman Kevin Faulconer opened a lead of nearly 10 percentage points against Democrat David Alvarez, with ballots from 63 percent of precincts counted.
Public opinion polls going into the Tuesday's election showed the race was too close to call, giving Faulconer, backed by the city's downtown establishment, a razor-thin edge and showing 7 percent of voters still undecided.
The winner will succeed the disgraced former mayor who resigned at the end of August after a string of women, starting with his then-press secretary Irene McCormack Jackson, came forward with allegations of sexual harassment.
Nearly 20 women eventually came forward to publicly accuse Filner, a former U.S. congressman, of making unwanted advances and other inappropriate behavior during his brief tenure as the first Democratic mayor of San Diego.
Faulconer, 47, emerged as the front-runner in an initial field of 11 candidates who ran to replace Filner in November. But he failed to garner the simple majority needed then to win outright, setting the stage for Tuesday's runoff with Alvarez, 33, who had narrowly clinched second place.
Three hours after polls closed Tuesday night, neither candidate was claiming victory or conceding defeat.
To supporters, Faulconer represents the center-right that was long the political pedigree of mayors in San Diego, which has traditionally tended to lean conservative, in part because of its large military and retired military presence.
The 2012 election of Filner, a liberal Democrat, was considered a political turning point.
APOLOGY, TREATMENT NOT ENOUGH
But Filner's career could not withstand the political and public outcry against him as harassment allegations streamed in, even after he apologized for his behavior and sought psychiatric treatment. He later pleaded guilty to criminal charges of false imprisonment and battery involving three women and was sentenced to three months of home confinement.
On Monday, municipal officials announced that the city and Filner had agreed to a $250,000 compensation package to settle the sexual harassment suit brought by McCormack Jackson, with the entire sum coming from city coffers.
Alvarez, whose platform most resembles Filner's, was elected to the city council in 2010 by largely working-class and Hispanic neighborhoods, including San Ysidro and Barrio Logan, where he grew up. He has established a track record of fighting for those communities, often finding himself at odds with downtown interests.
Support from San Diego's Latino neighborhoods, long ignored by the city's mainstream politicians, was seen as key in elevating Filner, who ran on a progressive platform.
That same dynamic gave Alvarez a shot at becoming San Diego's first Hispanic elected mayor - at least since California statehood - in a city originally founded as a presidio, or military post, by the Spanish five decades before Mexican independence.
The race between Faulconer and Alvarez turned nasty in the final days of the campaign, with stacks of mailers alleging that Alvarez is a tool of the unions and, at age 33, too young to run America's sixth-largest city.
Other mailers point out that Faulconer is a member of the San Diego Yacht Club, voted to cut death and disability benefits for firefighters, and charge that he is a pawn of downtown business interests. (Reporting by Marty Graham; Editing by Steve Gorman, Ken Wills and Gunna Dickson)