Never in Washington state has a governor's race been so close.

Only 261 votes separated the two candidates after a painstaking tally that triggered an automatic recount, required whenever the margin of victory is fewer than 2,000 ballots.

For the time being, Republican Dino Rossi (search) is out in front of Democrat Christine Gregoire (search). They should know by next Wednesday — so says Secretary of State Sam Reed — who will replace outgoing Democratic Gov. Gary Locke (search).

A statewide recount has never reversed the outcome of an election, but Reed isn't saying that won't happen after the 2.8 million ballots are tallied — again.

"We really aren't going to know before we do this recount who the governor is going to be," Reed, a Republican who will oversee the recount, said Wednesday as the counties reported their final tallies.

At his Bellevue campaign headquarters, Rossi told supporters he hopes to take his family on vacation during the recount, "somewhere quieter than here." He went on to thank his wife, four children, brothers, sisters and cousins. "I've got a lot of relatives," the state senator joked, "probably about 261."

Gregoire, the state attorney general, reassured cheering backers in Seattle that the election isn't over.

"We're going to make sure, in this recount, every single vote counts," Gregoire vowed. "This is not about Republican or Democrat, Libertarian or Independent, this is about all of us as Washingtonians, standing up, casting our ballots."

The breathtaking closeness was reflected in Wednesday's horse race. Rossi began the day 19 votes ahead, but King County's 4 p.m. report gave Gregoire a 39-vote lead. Gregoire's lead thinned as the sun set. At 5:14 p.m., Rossi went ahead by four votes. At 5:59, Gregoire took the lead by 13 votes. Finally, at 6:33 p.m., Benton County put Rossi ahead by 261 votes.

Washington leans Democrat and has not elected a Republican governor since 1980. Presidential candidate John Kerry won the state with 53 percent of the vote; the current governor, Locke, easily defeated Republican opponents to serve two terms; and Democrats control the Legislature.

Gregoire, 57, looked like the Democrats' Wonder Woman. Polished and popular, Gregoire won national recognition as lead negotiator of the 1997 tobacco settlement, in which major tobacco companies agreed to pay $206 billion to 46 states. But after a bruising primary, her campaign struggled to find a message that connected with voters.

Rossi, on the other hand, wasn't the GOP's first choice by a long shot. Republicans tried to recruit three other prospects. They wanted someone with a higher profile than the 45-year-old who lacked name recognition outside his Senate district. The commercial real estate agent surprised the party faithful, though. He ran a slick, strong campaign identifying him as a compassionate conservative. And his promise of a fresh start in state government caught on with voters.

Finally, it was time to vote. The tallying stretched over two weeks as mail ballots trickled in to elections offices. Only Washington and neighboring Alaska allow voters to mail ballots on Election Day.

As political junkies across the country recovered from their presidential election withdrawal, they turned to the Washington governor's race for entertainment.

"It's fun, it's exciting," said Joe Arko, a retired doctor in Plano, Texas, who has followed the Washington election religiously on the Internet. "It's like a two-week playoff series. But it's a lot more important than a ball game."