Democrats have claimed victory in the race for Washington governor by a razor-thin margin of eight votes, citing preliminary results of a hand recount they say puts Christine Gregoire (search) in front for the first time. Republicans maintained the race was still too close to call.

The stunning turnaround was reported late Tuesday by the head of the state Democratic Party, who said party officials' analysis of hand-counted returns from King County — the last county to finish the grueling process — showed that Gregoire had eclipsed the dwindling margin that Republican Dino Rossi (search) has held since Election Day.

"We're confident Christine Gregoire has been elected the governor of the state of Washington," Democratic Chairman Paul Berendt said. "I believe Dino Rossi should concede."

Neither King County nor the state Republican Party could confirm the recount results that led to the Democrats' analysis. GOP officials have said they were likely to take the matter to court in the event of a Gregoire win.

Rossi spokeswoman Mary Lane said Republicans were studying the recount data but had not drawn any conclusions. "It's just too close to call," Lane said.

A Gregoire lead could widen if the state Supreme Court allows the 700-plus recently discovered ballots from the Democratic stronghold of King County to be added to the total. The high court was scheduled to hear arguments Wednesday morning in a lawsuit over those ballots, which were excluded from first two counts because of mistakes made by county election workers.

.They weren't allowed in the hand recount, either, after a Pierce County judge granted a Republican request for a temporary restraining order Friday; the issue could be moot, however, if Gregoire's apparent eight-vote lead were to stand.

Out of 2.9 million ballots cast on Election Day, Rossi won by a mere 261 votes; his lead was whittled to 42 votes in a subsequent machine recount. Democrats paid for the hand recount, which got under way Dec. 8.

More legal battles appeared inevitable. Rossi has said that he would consider challenging the election results in court if he loses the third count after winning the first two. Republicans have already started preparing for a possible court challenge.

Berendt and Democratic party officials concluded Gregoire would win after crunching numbers supplied by King County, the state's largest. The county has finished recounting its 900,000 ballots, but election officials said they still need to reconcile differences in the precinct totals.

King County Elections spokeswoman Bobbie Egan, who confirmed that both parties received the recount data on Tuesday, said official results would be released Wednesday at 3:30 p.m.

Gregoire, 57, a three-term attorney general, was the favorite going into the election against Rossi, 45, a real estate agent and former state senator.

Seven justices will hear the lawsuit brought by King County, the state Democratic Party and the secretary of state seeking to include the 723 uncounted King County ballots. Three of the regular nine justices are out of town on previously scheduled trips, and one temporary judge will join the court.

About 350 people gathered Tuesday to show support for Rossi in front of the Supreme Court, at a rally sponsored by a conservative talk-radio station.

The crowd chanted "No more fraud!" They held signs saying "Welcome to Ukraine" and wore orange, a tribute to the signature color of demonstrators in Ukraine who protested a fraud-marred election there.