FRESNO -- State Sen. Jeff Denham had a solid lead early today over former Fresno Mayor Jim Patterson in battle for the Republican nomination in the 19th Congressional District.
Left in the campaign dust so far were the highest-profile candidate, former Tracy Rep. Richard Pombo, and the fourth candidate, Fresno City Councilman Larry Westerlund.
On the Democratic Party side, Madera resident Dr. Loraine Goodwin held a 7-percentage-point lead over Mariposa resident Les Marsden.
The winners of the Republican and Democratic primaries will meet in the November general election.
As expected on the Republican side, Denham was dominating the race in Stanislaus County and was running strong in Mariposa County, home of Rep. George Radanovich, who is retiring as the district's congressman after eight terms.
With all precincts reporting, Denham had 19,001 votes, or 36.4 percent; Patterson had 15,870 votes, or 30.4 percent; Pombo had 10,894, or 20.8 percent; and Westerlund had 6,507, or 12.4 percent.
In Stanislaus, Denham had 52 percent of the vote.
Patterson was performing as expected in the southern part of the district -- Fresno and Madera counties.
"What I am pleased about is that we are competitive and we did it the old-fashioned way -- with good, old-fashion grass-roots support of the people," Patterson said.
He said he might lose in the end to opponents with superior funds or high-profile political endorsements, but he predicted it would be "with a razor-thin margin."
Overall, Denham -- who did not return messages seeking comment -- led Patterson by less than 5 percentage points. The secretary of state's office showed that 81.5 percent of the 514 precincts were "partially or fully reporting."
His lead could be attributed in part to his performance in Fresno County, where Patterson held a commanding early lead, but Denham was putting in a respectable second-place showing. By comparison, Patterson was performing poorly in Stanislaus, where he barely bothered to campaign.
For the controversial Pombo, who served 14 years in the neighboring 11th Congressional District before being defeated in 2006, it was a poor start on election night as he looks to recapture a seat in Congress.
Still, he was not conceding defeat.
"It's still early," said Pombo, who was watching returns in a back room at Fresno's Downtown Club. "We knew this was going to be a tough race all along."
Pombo said the race for him came down to voter turnout. He said the predicted low turnout would hurt him.
The Tracy cattle rancher made a huge initial splash when he entered the race.
His stature as a former House Resources Committee chairman and lightning rod for environmentalists who opposed him gave the 19th District race a national buzz, and publications from the Wall Street Journal to The Hill, which covers Congress, took note.
But even though Pombo proved to be an effective fund-raiser, his momentum stalled as a national environmental organization that played a role in his 2006 defeat returned to hit him again.
Denham, meanwhile, was boosted by high name identification and by finding a way to spend a big state campaign war chest -- seemingly trapped because such funds cannot be used in a federal race -- on commercials for a nonprofit fund-raiser.
He also found an ally in the Madera County-based Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians, which operate a gaming casino near Coarsegold. The tribe ran an independent expenditure hitting Patterson in the closing days of the race and hosted a benefit concert to raise money for family members of military personnel killed on active duty.
In the weeks before the concert, ads featuring Denham were aired by the nonprofit Remembering the Brave. Denham didn't mention his run for Congress, but experts said the commercials clearly benefitted his campaign.
Denham also sent $175,000 from his state political account to Remembering the Brave. In addition, a Chukchansi marketing department meeting agenda memo -- which casino officials have disavowed -- suggests the concert was meant to help raise money for Denham's campaign.
Patterson, in the meantime, was a decade removed from office and hobbled by lackluster fund raising in the race.