Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire and her Republican challenger, Dino Rossi, easily came out on top in Washington's first-ever top-two primary election, setting up a rematch of the hard-fought 2004 election.

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John Aiken’s $83 campaign for governor is over.

But that was one of the few things resolved Tuesday in Washington’s first top-two primary election.

Like seven other little-known gubernatorial candidates, Aiken was dispatched when Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire and her Republican nemesis, Dino Rossi, easily came out on top in Tuesday’s voting.

It’s unlikely this year’s general-election race for governor will be decided by as razor thin a margin as four years ago. But everything else about this year’s race — from campaign spending to the level of acrimony — will surely top 2004. Gregoire and Rossi have raised a combined $16.5 million, already surpassing the record $14 million they raised during the entire 2004 election. Big-money interest groups and national party organizations are poised to pour millions more into the race.

In early returns Tuesday, Gregoire held a small lead over Rossi.

Both candidates said they were buoyed by the returns.

Four years ago, Rossi beat Gregoire in nearly all of the state’s rural counties but lost to her by a wide margin in King County, where nearly a third of state’s voters reside. In Tuesday’s early returns, however, Gregoire was leading Rossi in many of the counties she lost in 2004.

“It looks to me as though people are understanding that I’ve been working as governor to get results all across he state,” Gregoire said.

Rossi, meanwhile, pointed out that he was getting a much bigger percentage of the overall primary votes than he did in 2004.

“We’re a long ways ahead of where we were last time at this point,” Rossi said.

But he said it’s pointless to try to read too much into the primary vote. “It doesn’t really matter. The bottom line is, we’re on the general election,” Rossi said.

Tuesday’s primary set up another big rematch, between Republican Congressman Dave Reichert and Democratic challenger Darcy Burner in the Eighth Congressional District, which runs east of Lake Washington from Bellevue down to north Pierce County. Reichert held a tiny lead over Burner in early returns.

Under this year’s controversial new primary rules, the top two candidates in each race — regardless of party — move on to the general election. That means that in several races around the state, two candidates from the same party will run against each other in November.

In District 36, which spans Queen Anne, Fremont and Ballard, Democrats John Burbank and Reuven Carlyle will compete in November to replace veteran state Rep. Helen Sommers, who is retiring.

In District 46, which stretches from Lake City to Laurelhurst, Democrats Gerry Pollet and Scott White will face each other in the general election. They’re vying to replace Democratic Rep. Jim McIntire, who resigned to run for state treasurer.

In District 11, state Sen. Margarita Prentice, D-Renton, was leading among three Democrats.

In other key races:

• Attorney General Rob McKenna held a strong lead over his Democratic challenger, Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg.

• Terry Bergeson, seeking her fourth term as superintendent of public instruction, was leading former state lawmaker Randy Dorn.

• Republican Public Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland was locked in a close race with Democrat Peter Goldmark.

Two incumbent state Supreme Court justices — Mary Fairhurst and Charles Johnson — appear headed toward re-election. Each was receiving well over 50 percent of the vote in early returns. Judicial candidates who get more than half the vote in the primary advance to the general election unopposed. Justice Debra Stephens ran unopposed in the primary.

In the 2004 primary, Gregoire and her main Democratic opponent, King County Executive Ron Sims, picked up a combined 732,000 votes. Rossi got less than 450,000. But in that year’s general election, when more than 2.8 million people cast ballots, Gregoire’s final victory margin was 133 votes.

Both sides have been working hard to lower expectations, explaining in advance why a poor primary showing by their candidate wouldn’t mean much.

But if the primary had little meaning, you would never know it by the way both sides have been going at it. In the weeks leading up to the primary, Rossi and Gregoire — as well as interest groups on both sides of the battle — bombarded voters with television and radio ads, mailers and phone calls.

And that was just for warmups. Given all the hard feelings that still linger from 2004, this year’s contest is sure to be one of the nastiest that voters here have ever seen.

The Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW) set the tone last month when it put up Rossi billboards across Eastern Washington that read, “Don’t Let Seattle Steal This Election!”

The BIAW so far has put nearly $2 million into its anti-Gregoire efforts. Like Rossi’s other Republican allies, the builders are sticking to some common themes: They accuse Gregoire of recklessly driving up government spending. They say she has failed to fix the state’s traffic problems, despite helping push through the biggest gas-tax increase in state history.

On the other side, Gregoire and her allies are painting Rossi as an arch-conservative and a President Bush protégé. In the weeks ahead, they will work hard to publicize his stances against abortion and stem-cell research. And they will talk often about cuts Rossi made to things like children’s health care and teacher pay in 2003, when he was the state Senate’s lead budget writer.

Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882