After losing the first two counts in Washington's closest-ever race for governor, it appears Democrat Christine Gregoire has pulled even with — or possibly overtaken —...

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After losing the first two counts in Washington’s closest-ever race for governor, it appears Democrat Christine Gregoire has pulled even with — or possibly overtaken — Republican Dino Rossi on the final day of a contentious statewide manual recount.

King County, the last to complete the recount, is not expected to release new vote totals until this afternoon. But state Democratic Party Chairman Paul Berendt said last night the party’s calculations indicate that, with virtually all of the votes tallied, Gregoire is ahead by eight votes.

“Based on the data we’ve received, we’re confident she’s taken the lead,” Berendt said.

Republicans said they were still crunching King County’s figures and weren’t sure who was ahead. But they confirmed the margin is likely fewer than a dozen votes.

The parties’ totals do not include 735 disputed King County absentee ballots that county officials say were mistakenly rejected during last month’s initial vote count.

The state Supreme Court is scheduled to hold a hearing this morning on a Republican Party lawsuit seeking to block King County from counting those ballots.

State Supreme Court broadcast live today

The state Supreme Court hearing on King County’s ballot recount will be broadcast live at 9:30 a.m. on TVW, the state public-affairs channel, which is channel 23 on most cable networks. The case is to decide whether King County may consider counting more than 700 ballots that county officials say were erroneously rejected when election workers failed to locate voter signatures on file.

Gregoire could conceivably win the election, regardless of what the court rules.

If the court allows King County to count those ballots, Republicans vow, they will push to revive hundreds of ballots tossed out by other, more Republican-friendly counties.

“If they change the rules, then we’re going to aggressively fight by the new rules,” said state Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance.

Rossi won the initial count by 261 votes, out of nearly 3 million ballots cast. After his lead fell to just 42 votes after the first recount, Gregoire refused to concede and Democrats called for the statewide manual count.

With 38 of the state’s 39 counties reporting in the manual recount, Rossi picked up an additional seven votes on Gregoire.

King County plans to release tentative results this afternoon but will not certify the vote until the Supreme Court rules on the dispute over the 735 ballots.

Gregoire could pull away from Rossi if King County, a Democratic stronghold, is allowed to include the extra ballots.

Vance said the Republicans know of about 500 people statewide — including more than 260 who have signed affidavits — who say they voted for Rossi but their ballots were rejected because of signature mismatches or other problems.

The party said yesterday it has heard from several members of the military, including some serving in Iraq, who say they wanted to vote but did not receive ballots in time.

Vance said the party will fight to get all of those votes counted if the Supreme Court allows King County to tally its previously rejected ballots.

“If they can bring in theirs from King County, we’ll be going back to every county auditor and saying ‘Let’s start it all over again,’ ” Vance said.

“The Supreme Court needs to bring some order to this process.”

Vance has alleged that the King County canvassing board, which is made up of two Democrats and one Republican, is making partisan decisions that benefit Gregoire.

Today’s court hearing stems from King County’s discovery midway through the manual recount that hundreds of ballots — including one cast by Democratic King County Councilman Larry Phillips — had been mistakenly rejected.

The ballots were disqualified because those voters’ signatures were not found in the county’s electronic voter-registration files.

Election workers were supposed to have followed up by looking for the signatures in the county’s paper files, but didn’t, and instead included the ballots with others being rejected because of mismatched signatures, county elections officials say.

After King County’s canvassing board voted 2-1 last week to prepare the ballots for counting, Republicans sued. On Friday, Pierce County Superior Court Judge Stephanie Arend ordered King County to stop preparing the ballots.

The ballots were sealed and set aside, but the county continued looking for the voters’ registration files and, as of yesterday, had found signatures for nearly 600, said Bobbie Egan, county-elections spokeswoman.

Meanwhile, Democrats, King County and Secretary of State Sam Reed appealed Arend’s ruling to the Supreme Court, arguing that county canvassing boards have authority to correct mistakes like King County’s. And they point out that, during the manual recount and a previous machine recount, several counties included ballots that had been mistakenly left out of the initial count.

If the Supreme Court rules against King County, other counties will have to go back and undo any decisions they made to include new ballots in the recounts, according to Reed’s office.

But Republicans contend canvassing boards should not be allowed to bring back previously rejected ballots.

Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or

Seattle Times reporter David Postman contributed to this story.