DURHAM, N.C. – It's the kind of election that doesn't normally draw much interest: A primary for district attorney, where the only people in town who know much about the candidates are those who work at the courthouse.
That's not the case this year in Durham, where rape allegations against members of Duke University's lacrosse team have likely turned what might have been a low-key election into a referendum on the performance of incumbent Mike Nifong.
"I'm sure that after all this is over, people will say that I won because of how I handled this case or I lost because of this case," said Nifong, who was appointed to the office last year and is seeking election for the first time. "But no one will ever know."
The winner of Tuesday's Democratic primary vote between Nifong, Freda Black and Keith Bishop will likely be the next district attorney since no Republicans are running. If no candidate wins at least 40 percent of the vote, the top two will advance to a May 30 runoff.
Even if Nifong loses, he will remain in office until January, allowing him to keep pursuing his case against two indicted players. He has said he does not intend to step down early if he loses.
"Knowing that you're lame duck, in a way it would free you up to do exactly what your conscience dictated — which is what you should be doing all the time," said Garry Frank, the district attorney for Davidson, Alexander and Iredell counties, about 90 miles west of Durham. "The duty of a prosecutor is to ignore any political group ... and just make your call based on the law and the evidence."
For more than 20 years, Nifong was an assistant in the Durham district attorney's office, and fellow attorneys say he was comfortable in that role — practicing law while being able to leave at the end of the day to watch his son play baseball.
Nifong never expressed any interest in the top job before he was elevated to last year to fill the term of Jim Hardin, who was appointed to a judgeship, said Woody Vann, an attorney who has known Nifong for 25 years in this city of some 210,000 residents.
Frank said it's rare for voters outside the legal community to know much about their district attorney. Contests frequently hinge on voters picking a name on the ballot that they recognize from newspaper articles or yard signs.
"The people who are what you would consider to be active in the community and should be up to date with people who hold (leadership) positions — even they don't know who their D.A. is," Frank said.
That's not likely to be the case with Nifong, whose name appears in nearly every story about the case, in which a black 27-year-old student at North Carolina Central University told police she was raped by three white men at a March 13 party thrown by the Duke lacrosse team.
Nifong generally stopped talking about the case weeks ago, but he has drawn criticism from Black and Bishop over his aggressive early public comments in which he labeled some players "hooligans," said he was confident a rape occurred and boldly predicted DNA test results would identify the guilty.
Defense attorneys say those tests failed to find any connection between the accuser and the players who were tested.
"I believe a case — any case — should be tried in the court of law and not a court of public opinion," Black said at a candidate forum.
Black, now in private practice, is a former colleague of Nifong's in the Durham prosecutor's office. Nifong demanded her resignation on the day he took over the district attorney's office last year.
Bishop, also in private practice, said he would exercise "much better judgment" in what was said about the case.
All three candidates have been eager to talk about issues ranging from improving the court system to gang problems. At candidate forums, questions from other lawyers and members of the legal community sometimes touch on those issues.
But questions from the public almost always are about the lacrosse case. And that, Vann said, is a shame.
"There is a lot more that the race needs to be about than this one case," said Vann, who represented the accuser in a criminal case four years ago but is not involved now.
Nifong has said repeatedly that he won't allow politics to shape his decisions about the Duke case.
"You can't worry about stuff like that. You just can't worry about it," he said.