Republican Dino Rossi's (search) tiny lead over Democrat Christine Gregoire (search) in the closest governor's race in Washington state history triggered an automatic recount Wednesday.

Rossi held a 261-vote lead — out of 2.8 million ballots cast — after counties reported their final tallies to the state.

State law requires an automatic recount when the margin of victory is less than 2,000 votes, and a hand recount when the margin is less than 150. In the past 40 years, no statewide recount has reversed the election outcome — but there's also never been a governor's race this close before.

"What a crazy election this is!" said current Gov. Gary Locke (search), a Democrat who's stepping down after two terms.

"We really aren't going to know before we do this recount who the governor is going to be," said Secretary of State Sam Reed, a Republican who will oversee the recount. "I feel sorry for Attorney General Gregoire and Senator Rossi."

Reed said he wouldn't be surprised to see lawsuits. He said the recount should be completed by next Wednesday.

The vote-counting stretched over two weeks as mail ballots trickled in to county elections offices. Washington is one of two states (the other is Alaska) that allow voters to mail ballots on Election Day.

"This election demonstrates just how important it is that people vote," Locke said.

The candidates swapped the lead back and forth for two weeks and Wednesday was no exception. Rossi started 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 and it became clear that the 5 p.m. deadline for counties to report results was really more a suggestion than a rule.

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's results put Rossi ahead by 261 votes.

Washington is a Democrat-leaning state that has not elected a Republican governor since 1980. John Kerry (search) won the state with 53 percent of the vote, Locke easily defeated Republican opponents in the past two gubernatorial elections, and Democrats control the Legislature.

So why is this election so close?

Gregoire was the Democrats' Wonder Woman. Polished and popular, the 57-year-old attorney general 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 her campaign struggled to find a message that connected with voters.

Rossi, meanwhile, surprised everyone with a slick, strong campaign that painted him as a compassionate conservative. He wasn't the Republicans' first choice to run for governor, and he got the nod only after three other high-profile Republicans refused to be recruited. A commercial real-estate agent and two-term state senator, the 45-year-old Rossi lacked name recognition outside his district. But his promise of a fresh start in state government caught on with voters.

"Gregoire ran a front-runner, media-based race, where she did not take controversial positions, and focused her resources on the media rather than the grass roots, and that's very dangerous," said political scientist Ken Hoover, a professor at Western Washington University. "Rossi had a somewhat sharper message."

Libertarian Ruth Bennett, who appealed to liberal voters with her strong support for same-sex marriage rights, captured 2 percent of the vote.

As the vote-counting dragged on, both state parties went to court over the ballot count and conspiracy theories started circulating among election watchers.

Democrats went to court in King County to get the names of voters whose provisional ballots were in danger of being disqualified because of mismatched signatures. They then collected affidavits from provisional ballot voters, attesting to the ballots' validity. Republicans intervened, saying the affidavits weren't good enough to prevent election fraud.

The judge in the case ordered the provisional ballots counted, and chided both sides for dragging him into it.

King County raised eyebrows on Monday when election officials announced they had underestimated the number of ballots left to count — by 10,000. That was a big boost to Gregoire, who enjoyed her strongest support in King County.

Gregoire got another break when Grays Harbor County elections officials realized on Tuesday that hundreds of votes — apparently from Republican precincts — had been reported twice. They started fresh on Tuesday, and the recount switched the lead in that county from Rossi to Gregoire.

As political junkies across the country have recovered from their presidential election withdrawal, they've 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 been following the Washington state election religiously on the Internet. "It's like a two-week playoff series. But it's a lot more important than a ball game."