Republican Sen. Ted Stevens, a titan of Alaska politics convicted of felony charges last month, fell behind by three votes Wednesday as the count resumed in his re-election bid.
Democrat Mark Begich, the two-term mayor of Anchorage, began Wednesday down more than 3,200 votes but closed the gap as officials resumed counting early and absentee ballots. The tally was 125,019 to 125,016.
Neither side expected to be able to claim victory Wednesday. By late afternoon, officials had counted more than 44,000 of the roughly 90,000 outstanding ballots.
"Right now we're cautiously optimistic," said Bethany Lesser, spokeswoman for the state Democratic Party. "There's obviously more votes to come in, but it goes to show how hard we worked to get the vote out early and how important that was."
Stevens' campaign did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Convicted by jury last month
Last month, a federal jury in Washington convicted Stevens of lying on Senate disclosure forms to conceal more than $250,000 in gifts and home renovations from an oil field services company.
That might have spelled quick political doom for a lesser figure, but the 84-year-old Stevens is revered here for his decades of public service — and especially for scoring the state enormous sums of federal money.
Begich would be the first Democrat to win a Senate race in Alaska since the mid-1970s and a win would put his party one step closer to a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority in the Senate. Democrats are also trying to unseat Republicans in unresolved contests in Georgia and Minnesota.
Fellow senators have called on Stevens to resign, and he could face expulsion if he doesn't — in which case a special election would be held to determine his replacement. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, fresh from her failed run at the vice presidency, said Wednesday she'd be interested in serving in the Senate.
Recount is possible
Should the result remain close a recount is possible. In Alaska, the losing candidate or a collection of 10 voters has three days to petition for a recount unless the vote was a tie, in which case it would be automatic.
If the difference between the candidates is 0.5 percent of the total votes cast, the state pays for the recount, to be started within three days of the recount petition. The state Elections Division has 10 days to complete the recount.
Also undecided is the U.S. House race, where incumbent Republican Don Young holds a lead of nearly 17,000 votes over Democrat Ethan Berkowitz.
Absentee ballots, which continue to arrive in the mail, had to be postmarked by Election Day but could arrive up to 15 days after the election if sent from outside the country.