Inslee was ahead of McKenna by a margin of 51.3 percent to 48.7 percent in initial returns though neither candidate expects this will be the final margin as ballot counting continues in the coming days.
As expected, Inslee is prospering in the heavily Democratic King County, hauling in 63 percent in the initial batch of ballots. He's also ahead in Snohomish County with 51.8 percent.
McKenna, who is trying to become Washington's first Republican governor in three decades, is looking to finish with at least 40 percent of the final vote in King County and win in either Snohomish County or Pierce County to succeed.
He was ahead in Pierce County, 52 percent to 48 percent in Tuesday's early returns and by wide margins in several Republican strongholds east of the Cascades.
McKenna told reporters he is exactly where he expected to be based on surveys showing more Democrats than Republicans voted early. He's confident he'll prevail when the tallying ends.
"We feel really good where we are," he said. "We believe my numbers will steadily increase in the next several days. We may not know until next week. We may know by Friday."
Inslee, 61, of Bainbridge Island, served 15 years in Congress before resigning in March to focus on this race. From 1999 until he resigned, he represented the 1st Congressional District, which included portions of south Snohomish County.
McKenna, 50, of Bellevue, is in his second term as attorney general and looking to become the first Republican elected as the state's chief executive since John Spellman in 1980.
Throughout the campaign he sought to position himself as a moderate Republican who could work with moderate Democrats in order to steer the state in a different direction on education and fiscal policy.
Their battle, conducted in the glare of a national audience, may wind up the most costly gubernatorial contest yet.
Inslee and McKenna will spend a combined $26 million when all the bills are paid.
Outside groups expended another $22 million trying to influence the outcome with commercials and mailers.
Education funding was a central issue at each of their five debates and numerous joint appearances.
Inslee and McKenna both pledged to find billions of additional dollars for public schools and colleges without resorting to hiking taxes -- something the retiring Gov. Chris Gregoire doesn't see as possible.
McKenna sketched out a plan to come up with $1.7 billion for public schools and colleges in his first budget primarily by redirecting money from non-education programs into classrooms. He also said he would pay less of the health care tab of state workers and not fill every vacant government job, and put the savings into schools.
Inslee challenged McKenna for embracing a controversial proposal to give local school districts a greater share of the state's property tax levy. It involves a swap of revenues raised from local levies with dollars from statewide property tax collections.
Inslee called it a gimmick that would cause property taxes to rise in some school districts without generating any additional dollars for schools.
McKenna countered that the proposal is a means for complying with an order from the state Supreme Court to boost the state's financial support of public schools.
For his part, Inslee vowed to find additional money for education by trimming unnecessary spending, lowering health care costs of state employees and generating revenue from a revived economy. He also vowed a wider use of lean management strategies would also cut costs and free up bucks for schools.
The two men offered vastly different approaches to igniting the economy.
McKenna pushed a plan centered on lowering costs of unemployment insurance and workers compensation, reducing regulations and revamping the business and occupation tax.
Inslee proposed 75 different undertakings around the state to incite job creation. He also vowed to make Washington a leader in clean energy and other new technologies.
Both candidates pledged to bring a transportation funding package to voters in their first term.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org
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