Twelfth Congressional District Republican candidate Max Burns was leading rival Charles "Champ" Walker Jr. in early election returns Tuesday.
With 59 percent of 12th District precincts reporting, Mr. Burns had 35,516 votes, or 51.1 percent, to Mr. Walker's 33,920, or 48.9 percent.
In Richmond County, with 15 of 72 precincts reporting, Mr. Burns had 3,184 votes to Mr. Walker's 2,913.
In Chatham County, with 83 of 109 precincts reporting, Mr. Burns had 12,188 to Mr. Walker's 14,582 votes.
And in Clarke County, the third major population center in the district, Mr. Burns held a slight edge over Mr. Walker, with 9,631 votes to Mr. Walker's 9,375 with 22 of 23 precincts reporting.
"We certainly expected to run, hopefully, even or a little better than Champ in Richmond," Mr. Burns said from his election party at the Southern Links Public Golf Club in Statesboro. "I'd love to see some more numbers, but you've got to be encouraged."
Mr. Walker's campaign consultants said Mr. Walker would not make any comments until further returns were reported.
The rivalry between the candidates has been bitter since Mr. Walker, 34, a Democrat, defeated Augusta lawyer Ben Allen in a Sept. 10 runoff to face the Republican Mr. Burns, who defeated Barbara Dooley, the wife of University of Georgia Athletic Director Vince Dooley, in the August primary.
Political analysts predicted Mr. Walker would win in the district, which some people contend was drawn for him and which has 60 percent of its voters listed as Democrats.
Mr. Walker's record of arrests, bad debts and business practices became issues that the Burns campaign exploited in radio and TV ads. One ad accused Mr. Walker's company, CresTech, of charging Georgia prison inmates' families $10 a minute for long-distance phone calls.
Mr. Walker responded last week by filing a libel and slander lawsuit against Mr. Burns, 53, after the Georgia Southern University professor failed to publicly retract the allegations in the ads and to apologize.
The Walker camp also accused Mr. Burns of wanting to do away with Medicare because he signed a Republican Liberty Caucus pledge to shrink government, reduce taxes and abolish programs.
In the campaign's latter days, polls showed Mr. Burns leading Mr. Walker by 11.6 to 15 percentage points, and political analysts were questioning their earlier predictions.
As of Oct. 16, Mr. Walker had raised $882,433 to Mr. Burns' $491,066, according to reports filed with the Federal Elections Commission.