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PHOENIX -- The hand-picked successor of former Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords pulled slightly ahead of his Republican challenger for the first time Friday as more votes were tallied from the election.

Meanwhile, a Democrat seeking a Phoenix-area congressional seat saw her lead increase and began packing her bags for freshman orientation in Washington next week.

Both races were still too close to call, with the contest exceptionally tight between Rep. Ron Barber and former Air Force fighter pilot and Republican Martha McSally for the 2nd Congressional District.

The lead for Kyrsten Sinema in the race to fill the new 9th Congressional District widened, with Republican Vernon Parker trailing by about 4,000 votes.

``We feel very good, we're just very optimistic,'' Sinema said. ``As you can see, the numbers are getting better every day.''

Parker's spokeswoman said he was not available Friday.

Results posted late in the afternoon show Democrat Ron Barber with a lead of nearly 600 votes over Martha McSally in the 2nd Congressional District race. Nearly a quarter-million votes have been counted but there are still thousands of ballots to count in the district that includes parts of Tucson and Pima County and all of Cochise County.

Barber won a June special election to fill the remaining six months of Giffords' term and was seeking a full term in the moderate district.

Cochise County has about 11,000 votes yet to count, and all of them are in the 2nd District. Pima County has about 82,000 votes to count, but it's not known how many are in 2nd District.

``Martha McSally remains in a solid position to carry the district, and our projections indicate she will win,'' National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Daniel Scarpinato said in a note sent to reporters.

Sinema said in an interview with The Associated Press that she believed she was winning and was preparing to head to Washington. If the race is still close, she said she thought Parker might be invited as well, although they haven't spoken.

Maricopa County has the most early and provisional ballots left to count, with more than 450,000. The Arizona secretary of state's office said more than 631,0 votes statewide remained to be counted in the coming days.

The number of uncounted ballots- more than a quarter of all ballots cast in the state- brought criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona. It said the large number raised questions about whether the state voter identification law was blocking some votes.

But secretary of state spokesman Matt Roberts said with more than two-thirds of Arizona voters using early ballots the delay is understandable.

Each one of those ballots must have a verified signature on the envelope, then be checked by an election board to make sure the ballot is marked correctly and that there aren't extra ballots in the envelope. The ballots are then fed into a counting machine.

Roberts also said the number of provisional ballots- those given to voters who appear at the polls either without proper ID, who records show already voted early, or somehow were not shown on the official precinct voter rolls- were not out of line with previously presidential elections.

Statewide, 172,000 provisional ballots remained to be counted. In the 2008 presidential election, 152,000 were cast statewide.

Final vote tallies are due to the state by Nov. 14, but if the count isn't complete, Roberts said the secretary of state will wait. The official state election canvass is set for Dec. 3.

``I know people are anxiously awaiting these results, but I would urge people to be patient and know that we value accuracy over expediency,'' Roberts said. ``I guarantee they won't start the Legislature or Congress without these folks.''

Associated Press,

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