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California Attorney General Race May Take Weeks To Decide

SACRAMENTO (AP) -- Four days after he prematurely claimed victory on Election Day, Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley was trailing Friday by 12,000 votes in the race for state attorney general.

However, the contest between Republican Cooley and his Democratic rival, San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, could remain too close to call for several weeks. More than 2.3 million late or provisional ballots remain to be counted before the end of the month, according to the secretary of state's office.

Harris led Cooley by two-tenths of a percentage point among the more than 7 million ballots tallied so far. A victory by Harris would give Democrats a sweep of statewide offices.

California's size makes the position influential on a national scale, sparking added interest in the campaign and its outcome. President Barack Obama attended a fundraising event for Harris, while the Republican State Leadership Committee, chaired by former Bush White House counselor Ed Gillespie, poured in money on Cooley's behalf.

The margin appears to be the tightest for a statewide office since 2002, when Democrat Steve Westly edged Republican Tom McClintock for state controller, said Shannan Velayas, spokeswoman for the secretary of state.

Westly won by less than 17,000 votes, or three-tenths of a percentage point.

Cooley had been ahead in early returns on Election Day.

He told supporters Tuesday night that he was disregarding his political consultants' advice and declaring victory. He later told KNBC in Los Angeles that if he was wrong, "then it's one of those Dewey moments." The reference was to famous newspaper headlines in 1948 that wrongly said Thomas Dewey had beaten Harry Truman for president.

Cooley spokesman Kevin Spillane said it is too soon to say who won.

"You'll see a lot of fluctuation back and forth" in coming days, Spillane said. "Usually it doesn't matter. Here, people are paying attention."

The count has been up and down by thousands of votes since election night, though Harris has consistently been ahead.

Harris spokesman Brian Brokaw predicted that Harris' late surge in the polls and on Election Day is likely to continue as the remaining ballots are counted, given the location of the outstanding ballots and her momentum.

Santa Cruz County Registrar Gail Pellerin, president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials, said that tracks with her experience that late voters tend to be more liberal.

But both agreed with Spillane that it could be two weeks before it is clear who won.

"It's kind of going to be a wait and see game," Brokaw said.

Counties have 28 days to count all the ballots before the Nov. 30 official vote canvass, said Velayas, the secretary of state spokeswoman. Election officials must match signatures on mail-in ballots with voter records, decide if damaged ballots can be counted, and rule whether provisional voters were eligible to cast ballots.

Cooley, 63, has been Los Angeles' top prosecutor since 2000. He had the backing of most law enforcement groups and promoted his support for the death penalty.

Harris, 46, was elected San Francisco district attorney in 2003, becoming California's first black woman elected district attorney.

Her victory would not only give Democrats control of all seven statewide offices and both legislative chambers, but would make her the first woman and first African-American to be elected the state's top law enforcement officer.

(© 2010 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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