Cantwell moves into lead in contest for Senate seat

By DAVID AMMONS

Associated Press

OLYMPIA — Democratic challenger Maria Cantwell edged into the lead in the nation’s last unsettled Senate contest Tuesday, but the race was headed toward an automatic recount next week.

If the lead holds and Cantwell unseats Republican Sen. Slade Gorton, it would lift the Democrats into a 50-50 tie in the Senate.

Cantwell, 42, a dotcom millionaire and former congresswoman, forged into the lead for the first time since election night on the strength of returns from King County, which includes heavily Democratic Seattle.

With more than 2.4 million votes cast, Cantwell had a lead of 1,780 votes.

But Gorton, 72, who has served three terms in the Senate, remained optimistic that votes from outlying counties would restore his lead, for good.

The Secretary of State Ralph Munro estimated that about 9,700 ballots remaining to be counted todayw.

On Tuesday, Cantwell picked up 7,717 additional votes in King County, a bastion of support, while Gorton gained 4,814 votes there. That wiped out, at least temporarily, Gorton’s tenuous lead.

Cantwell had a margin of more than 150,000 votes in King County, 459,110 to 305,989. She also was carrying Jefferson, San Juan, Snohomish and Thurston counties. Gorton was carrying the other 34 counties, although the two were close in Kitsap and Pierce counties.

Cantwell campaign officials were relieved to finally move into the lead, something they have been predicting for the past two weeks. But they stopped short of forecasting victory.

"The answer is, we don’t know what will happen," Cantwell spokesman Ellis Conklin said. "We’re hoping to pull it out tomorrow."

He referred to today’s deadline for counties to complete their counts and to certify the results.

The Gorton camp was subdued, but said victory still was within grasp.

"The numbers today were no surprise," except more were counted in King County than expected, about 12,500, Gorton spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman said. "Now we will have to make up the difference around the state, and we think we can do that."

Gorton was first elected to public office in the year Cantwell was born, 1958. He sat out one two-year hiatus after a defeat for re-election in 1986. He won an open seat in 1988 and was re-elected in 1994, rising to the leadership ranks and an appropriations subcommittee chairmanship.

While both camps continued to express optimism of winning a narrow victory, nothing will be final until a mandatory recount occurs. A recount is automatic whenever a margin is less than 0.5 percent, or about 12,000 votes in the case of this year’s Senate election.

Munro is expected to call the recount on Monday after certifying county results that day. The recount could begin as early as the same afternoon if counties have given the candidates proper two-day notice, Munro spokesman David Brine said.

The recount "can take as long as it takes," but most counties are expected to wind up their work next week, Brine said. Many counties can do their machine recount in one day, while larger counties may need two days and the largest counties, including King, probably will need three or more days, he said.

Results will be posted on the state’s official election Web site, but Munro doesn’t certify the election until Dec. 7, including the Senate numbers if recounts are not continuing.

Neither side has talked about the time-consuming alternative of a hand recount. State law provides for automatic, taxpayer-funded hand recounts in statewide races where the margin is less than 150 votes.

The Senate contest is the closest race for statewide office since 1968. That one, too, involved Gorton and a recount. In his first race for attorney general, the Seattle lawyer and state lawmaker defeated Democrat John McCutcheon by 5,368 votes.

Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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