With absentee ballots finally counted after Tuesday's primary, former Interior Secretary Walter J. Hickel can only say he feels "real good" about his tiny primary election lead over Gov. Jay Hammon. But he has to continue holding his breath for a concession statement from Hammond, who has been vacationing without comment at a remote family homestead 1,000 miles from here.

Almost 5,000 ballots are still under challenge, because of irregularities, while Hickel only leads fellow Republican Hammond by 446 votes, or less than one-half of 1 percent, following a record turnout in the Aug. 22 primary election.

The Democratic primary was even closer, but it appeared that State Sen. Chancy Croft of Anchorage was the victor by a 318-vote lead over former State Senator Ed Merdes of Fairbanks.

Although Associated Press, among other news organizations, declared Hickel and Croft the winners, the Hammond and Merdes camps gave no indication that they would issue concession statements without a recount. And with margins that close, some politicians believed the lead could change during recounts tentatively scheduled to begin Sept. 11.

Still to be counted are returns from seven isolated villages, 4,465 challenged ballots and an estimated 500 absentee returns still in the mail.

With 396 of the state's 403 precincts counted, Hickel had 29,835 votes to 29,389 for Hammond. The liberal Croft led the conservative Merdes, 8,263 to 7,945.

Hickel relied heavily on the state's most populous and conservative city, Anchorage, his hometown.

For his campaign platform, Hickel ran almost exclusively on the notion that federal parklands legislation pending in the Senate should be killed and the state's vast resources developed through more railroads, highways and oil and gas lease sales.

If his lead holds up, Hickel would be favored in November to defeat Democrat Croft, a 10-year veteran of the legislature and author of many of Alaska's oil and gas laws, which call for the highest taxes on the petroleum industry in the nation and tough regulation.

However, Croft will attempt to pick away at Hickel's record as a former governor, interior secretary under the Nixon administration, and now a millionaire businessman.

Meanwhile, an investigation which could lead to criminal charges is scheduled for a hearing this week by state officials looking into a $5,000 cash donation to the Hickel campaign.

Car dealer Cal Worthington allegedly raised the contribution by giving $100 bonuses to his employees to be funneled to Hickel workers. A spokesman for Hickel said the money was returned immediately after it was discovered that the donation violated several laws, including a $1,000 limit on individual contributions.

The case could result in a $5,000 fine and a year in jail for Worthington. If Hickel were found liable for any wrongdoing, he could be forced to forfeit the election.