updated 3/10/2004 12:01:36 PM ET 2004-03-10T17:01:36

U.S. Rep. Ciro D. Rodriguez pulled out a narrow victory over Democratic rival Henry Cuellar in a hard-fought primary race that featured two former friends battling each other because of a new, Republican congressional map.

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Cuellar, aided by an overwhelming victory margin in his home Webb County, which includes Laredo, led in early returns. But the incumbent overtook him as votes came in from his hometown of San Antonio.

With all but seven precincts reporting Wednesday, state and county officials had Rodriguez with 24,004 votes, or 51 percent, while Cuellar, of Laredo, was at 23,169 votes, or 49 percent.

“It’s time to unite the party and time to build bridges,” said John Puder, an election consultant for Rodriguez. “We’re very proud to have won.”

But Cuellar, a former Texas secretary of state, refused to concede.

“We’re going to wait until every vote is counted,” he said Wednesday by phone from Laredo.

Cuellar was leading by a 2-to-1 margin in Zapata County, south of Laredo, where only about 1,500 Democratic votes had been tabulated Wednesday morning. County election officials did not answer calls seeking comment, but Rodriguez had said he heard that voting machines broke down.

Rodriguez’ opponent in November will be determined by an April 13 runoff election between Seguin lawyer Jim Hopson and Francisco Canseco.

The Rodriguez-Cuellar race was one of the most-watched primary contests in Texas, in part because of their long political ties.

Rodriguez, 57, said repeatedly that he felt betrayed by Cuellar’s candidacy. He said he deserved more respect after providing financial and campaign help to Cuellar in 2002, when Cuellar nearly defeated Rep. Henry Bonilla in District 23.

Cuellar had planned to run again this year against Bonilla, also of San Antonio, but last year’s GOP-led redistricting made Bonilla’s district more solidly Republican by including voters in San Antonio’s well-to-do northern suburbs.

Court battles over the redistricting plan had shortened the campaign to seven weeks. The U.S. Supreme Court is not expected to rule on the Democrats’ appeal before November. If the court overturns the map, its decision is unlikely to affect congressional lines until 2006. The bitter redistricting fight had led legislative Democrats to twice bolt outside the state to foil votes on the measure.

Republicans hope to win at least 22 of Texas’ 32 congressional seats, now split evenly between the parties.

In other Texas congressional primaries, Al Green, a former head of the Houston NAACP, trounced freshman Rep. Chris Bell, winning 18,018 or 66 percent of the vote to Bell’s 8,482 or 31 percent. Bell, who is white, ran in a predominantly minority district against two black candidates.

Green will next face Arlette Molina in the November general election.

Veteran Democratic Rep. Lloyd Doggett, of Austin, dipped into a more than $2.5 million campaign chest to defeat former state district Judge Leticia Hinojosa to keep his job secure.

Doggett, 57, bill his victory as a win over U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who masterminded the redrawing of Texas’ districts. Doggett won 64 percent, 40,276 votes, to Hinojosa’s 36 percent with 22,296 votes.

Doggett faces Republican Rebecca Armendariz Klein in November in their predominantly Hispanic district.

Republican Rep. Ralph Hall, who left the Democratic party in January, easily defeated two lesser-known challengers a day after riding with President Bush on Air Force One to a Houston fund-raiser.

Hall is expected win in November against businessman Jim Nickerson, a Democrat.

President Bush’s Crawford ranch was part of a Waco-centered district that was redrawn to include more Republican-leaning voters. Democratic Rep. Chet Edwards ran unopposed in the primary; Republicans Arlene Wohlgemuth, a state representative, and Dot Snyder, a former Waco school board member, advanced to an April 17 runoff for the chance to face him in November.

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