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updated 2/7/2008 9:56:17 AM ET 2008-02-07T14:56:17

Democrats prepared Wednesday to examine more than 17,000 provisional ballots that will determine a winner in New Mexico's tightly contested presidential caucus.

With 183 of 184 of precincts reporting, Hillary Rodham Clinton held a lead of 1,092 votes - 67,921 votes compared to 66,829 for Barack Obama, according to preliminary results posted on the state Democratic Party's Web site.

New Mexico is the only one of 22 states that held Democratic primaries and caucuses on Super Tuesday yet to report a winner.

The examination of the provisional ballots, expected to begin Thursday, will be closed to the news media but will be attended by representatives from both the Obama and Clinton campaigns, party officials said.

Provisional ballots are given to voters who show up to the wrong site, whose names are not on registered voter lists provided by the state or who requested an absentee ballot but signed an affidavit saying they did not return it.

Democratic Party Chairman Brian Colon said 17,077 provisional ballots were cast, about 12 percent of the total.

Every delegate counts
When the provisional count is done, it may mean only a gain of a few delegates for the winning candidate. Clinton and Obama are vying for 26 of New Mexico's 38 delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Twelve so-called superdelegates are not bound by caucus results.

The caucus, which was run by the state's Democratic Party, was riddled with trouble - with reports coming from across the state of exasperated voters waiting in lines for up to three hours and polling sites running short of ballots.

Polling problems
Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson said he was "deeply disturbed" by problems and long lines at caucus sites, where volunteer workers were overwhelmed by greater-than-expected turnout.

"As this very close election shows, every vote is important and every vote must count. Anything less is unacceptable. In addition, the delay in results was extremely disappointing," said Richardson, himself a candidate for the nomination until dropping out.

Colon said he took responsibility for the problems.

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"We absolutely miscalculated and I apologize," he said. "It's a tragedy when folks are not afforded the opportunity to vote."

Mara Lee, state director for the Clinton campaign, said hundreds of people had called a campaign hot line to voice concerns about the caucus. Lee said the state party was unprepared.

"What my concern is mostly that the party system broke down yesterday and I don't want New Mexicans to be punished," Lee said.

Some said the snail's pace of declaring a winner in New Mexico is not unusual.

"As we got more and more results in, it seemed to get tighter and tighter, and that's not an anomaly in elections in New Mexico," said Laura E. Sanchez, executive director of the state Democratic Party. "We saw that in 2004. We saw that in 2000."

Lonna Atkeson, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico who planned to observe the provisional ballot verification process, predicted a drawn-out wait.

"Our state is so competitive at a federal level that we have to count the votes and we have to count them by hand and we have to verify voters and that's time consuming, especially on the provisionals," she said.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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