BELLEVUE, Wash. -- Republican Sen. Slade Gorton and his Democratic challenger, Maria Cantwell, could wait two weeks or more to learn the outcome of the nation's last undecided Senate race.
Both said Wednesday that their chances look good. Their fate hangs on about 500,000 absentee ballots.
With 99 percent of the precincts reporting and more than 1.6 million votes counted, Gorton led by about 3,000 votes Thursday morning.
About 670,000 ballots still are out, but Gorton aides said they don't expect more than 500,000 to be returned. Absentee ballots could be mailed as late as Election Day from anywhere in the world.
The close race for Gorton, an 18-year veteran, reflected a GOP slump in the state. Al Gore carried the state handily and the Democrats thumped a Republican challenger for governor, picked up a congressional seat and possibly solidified their control of the Legislature.
Cantwell, 42, a dot-com millionaire, hoped to ride the Democratic wave.
"As the final numbers come in, we are going to be successful," she said. "I believe I will ultimately prevail."
But Gorton said he was also optimistic.
"I am very happy to have the lead," he said. "I'm optimistic the end result will be a victory, but no one can be at all certain of that with this large number of votes out."
Cantwell said she may be able to declare victory Friday, when most of the absentee ballots should be tallied. Gorton said it could be a week from Friday, or even later if the results are close enough to trigger an automatic recount or if either side decides to pay for a recount.
Gorton said a dozen GOP senators called him Wednesday, anxious to know if their wafer-thin majority in the Senate would get some padding. The GOP was down to 50 seats after the election. Gorton would be No. 51.
Gorton, 72, was philosophical about his predicament.
"You just have to have patience when you don't have any control over what's going on. Patience is a virtue in this business that you must cultivate or you're in deep trouble."
Cantwell was expected to gain votes in heavily Democratic Seattle, but Gorton's campaign said he would triumph in Eastern and Southwest Washington and other areas outside the metropolitan area.
Cantwell said most of the uncounted votes were from areas where she ran strongest. Gorton aides, meanwhile, said Republicans did a better job of "working" absentees -- getting people signed up and then following up with phone calls.
This year's race was the state's most expensive ever. Cantwell spent $10 million, mostly her own money. Gorton was expected to top $7 million, although he likes to point out that it came from 22,000 donors, not one millionaire's checkbook.
If Cantwell prevails, the state would have two women senators for the first time. California and Maine also have two women senators.
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