(Re-ledes with early results, exit polls)

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Preliminary results in the Puerto Rican gubernatorial race give a slight advantage to challenger Alejandro Garcia Padilla over incumbent Luis Fortuño.

With 2.8 percent of the ballots counted, Garcia Padilla leads the governor by 48.52 percent to 47.91 percent, the State Elections Commission said.

The remaining votes were split among four other candidates.

The early returns appear to confirm the forecasts made in the latest surveys, which predicted a very tight race.

El Nuevo Dia newspaper released in its online edition an exit poll of 1,500 voters that suggests Fortuño will win with 49 percent of the vote compared to Garcia Padilla's 44 percent.

Regarding the non-binding referendum on the nature of Puerto Rico's relationship with the United States, the exit poll shows the issue to be tied at 48 percent between those voters who favor modifying the current commonwealth model and those who prefer to maintain the present arrangement.

The preliminary results on the referendum on the second question, which includes three options, show that 50 percent favor U.S. statehood, 32 percent support an enhanced commonwealth status and 4 percent want independence for the island, while the remaining 14 percent of those surveyed said they had left this issue blank on their ballots.

More than 2.4 million people were eligible to cast ballots on Tuesday.

Besides the race for governor and San Juan's non-voting representative to the U.S. Congress, voters chose the 78 members of the Puerto Rican legislature and the mayors of the island's 79 municipalities.

This year's election season was marked up to the last minute by the efforts of Garcia Padilla's PPD to enable the 330,000 people dropped from the island's voting rolls for not casting ballots in 2008 to vote this time around.

After several contradictory court decisions, a federal appellate court in Boston on Monday evening nullified an earlier order by U.S. District Judge Consuelo Vargas, who had ruled that those 330,000 people could vote provisionally while waiting for a definitive resolution of the matter. EFE