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'American Idol' runner-up Clay Aiken's key Democratic opponent dies

By Colleen Jenkins

WINSTON-SALEM, North Carolina (Reuters) - U.S. congressional candidate Keith Crisco, who battled "American Idol" runner-up Clay Aiken in a May 6 Democratic primary race in North Carolina deemed too close to call, died on Monday, the state elections board said.

Crisco, 71, a businessman and former North Carolina commerce secretary, died after a fall at his home in Asheboro, according to the Asheboro Courier-Tribune. His campaign could not be reached immediately for comment.

Aiken, 35, led Crisco by fewer than 400 votes after last week's primary election for the Democratic nomination in the state's second congressional district. The entertainer, who said he was "stunned and deeply saddened" by his opponent's death, temporarily suspended all campaign activities.

"He was a gentleman, a good and honorable man and an extraordinary public servant," Aiken said in a statement. "I was honored to know him."

Aiken won 40.83 percent of the vote, putting him just ahead of Crisco's 39.54 percent, according to unofficial results from the state elections board.

Crisco had not yet signaled whether he would request a recount, which North Carolina law allows when the spread between the top two finishers is 1 percent or less, but Raleigh media reported that he told friends he was planning to concede on Tuesday.

Crisco had said his experience in public service and as a founding partner of a textile company offset his lack of name recognition compared with Aiken, who taught special education in North Carolina before his 2003 "Idol" appearance launched his singing career.

But Crisco, who served as the state's commerce secretary from 2009 to 2012, admitted he had to work harder to get his message out. He outspent Aiken on the campaign, running four television ads compared to the political newcomer's one.

"I'm going for it," Crisco said at a candidate forum in Cary last month.

Political analysts said it was unlikely any of the Democrats in the race would be able to unseat incumbent U.S. Representative Renee Ellmers in November in the conservative district they say was redrawn to favor the Republican Party.

(Reporting by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Scott Malone and Eric Walsh)

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