By Colleen Jenkins
WINSTON-SALEM N.C. (Reuters) - "American Idol" runner-up Clay Aiken held a narrow lead on Wednesday in his bid to become the Democratic nominee for a North Carolina congressional seat but could face a recount with a challenger who trails by fewer than 400 votes.
Aiken won 40.83 percent of the vote in the 2nd congressional district primary on Tuesday, putting him just ahead of former North Carolina commerce secretary Keith Crisco's 39.54 percent, according to unofficial results from the state elections board.
Aiken, 35, surpassed the 40 percent of votes needed to avoid a runoff, but North Carolina law allows for a recount when the spread between the top two finishers is 1 percent or less.
Crisco, 71, said the election remained too close to call but did not signal whether he would request a recount.
"This election is still very tight," he said. "I want the elections officials to have an opportunity to tally the votes and provide a report on their canvass activities to allow all the campaigns a chance to see the final numbers."
Aiken said he was grateful voters had responded to his call to change the tone of politics.
"As we continue to count the votes, we are more and more excited about our campaign’s ability to move forward and be victorious in November," he said in a statement.
The entertainer's first foray into politics brought celebrity buzz and national attention to the Democratic contest, which pitted him against Crisco, an Asheboro businessman, and Fayetteville counselor Toni Morris, 49.
Aiken, who taught special education in North Carolina before his 2003 "Idol" appearance, earned respect from voters and pundits by proving knowledgeable about policy issues. He was outspent by Crisco, who ran four television ads compared to Aiken's one.
The primary vote tally, which included 19.63 percent for Morris, could change as provisional ballots and some additional absentee votes are counted, said state elections board spokesman Josh Lawson.
The winner will challenge U.S. Representative Renee Ellmers, the Republican incumbent who beat her primary opponent with nearly 59 percent of the vote on Tuesday. Political analysts predict a tough slog for Democrats in the conservative district they say was redrawn to favor the Republican party.
(Editing by Scott Malone and James Dalgleish)