Three days after Election Day, Democrat Christine Gregoire clung to a narrow lead Friday in the nation's last undecided race for governor -- a cliffhanger contest that could drag on for weeks while the votes are counted.

With most of the state's 39 counties reporting additional votes, Gregoire, Washington's attorney general, led Republican former state senator Dino Rossi by 5,500 votes, a difference of less than a quarter of one percentage point. Nearly 2.4 million ballots have been counted.

A Gregoire victory would mean the Democrats would preserve their 22 governorships nationwide. The Republicans are already assured of at least maintaining their 28.

The counties believe they have about 400,000 additional ballots to count this week and next. The deadline for counties to certify is Nov. 17.

Gregoire and Rossi have stayed out of sight since Election Day, resting and spending time with their families while they await the verdict.

"We are definitely optimistic that as more of the later absentees come in, we will continue to trend upward," said Rossi spokeswoman Mary Lane.

Gregoire campaign adviser Christian Sinderman said: "We remain cautiously optimistic. The investment in turning out Democratic absentee voters seems to be paying off in the late ballot count."

Rossi and GOP groups hit Gregoire hard over a mistake in the attorney general's office that resulted in the state having to pay a multimillion-dollar judgment.

Gregoire, 57, played up her experience in serving three terms as attorney general and her role in securing a settlement of more than $200 billion from tobacco companies to compensate states for health care costs. She is seeking to become the second female governor in state history.

Rossi, 45, a real estate agent and self-made millionaire, was known for crafting a no-new-taxes state budget during a deep recession.

A third candidate, Libertarian Ruth Bennett, has played a potential spoiler role. The Seattle businesswoman ran as a lesbian who advocated gay marriage, tailoring her message to Seattle liberals who otherwise would have voted for Gregoire.

The ballot count in Washington state is complicated by the fact that most residents cast absentee ballots by mail.

A recount is automatic if the race ends up within one-half of one percentage point apart and within 2,000 votes.

The contest is reminiscent of a cliffhanger after the 2000 Senate race. It took almost a month for Democrat Maria Cantwell to learn that she had defeated Republican Sen. Slade Gorton by about 2,200 votes.