DURHAM, N.C. – The district attorney prosecuting two Duke University athletes on rape charges fought off two challengers in the Democratic primary Tuesday, assuring he will remain in charge of the headline-grabbing case.

The allegations against team members turned what might have been a low-key election into a referendum on Mike Nifong’s performance.

In unofficial results, Nifong had 45 percent of the vote, with challenger Freda Black close behind with about 42 percent. There are no Republicans running in the general election, and Nifong needed only 40 percent of the vote to avoid a primary runoff.

“My whole message was that the case has nothing to do with the campaign,” Nifong said. “All I could do was handle the case the best way the case could be handled, and that’s what I tried to do.” Some voters agreed, saying it was unfair to judge the veteran prosecutor on just one case, even if it has drawn intense media scrutiny to Durham and Duke University, by far the largest employer in the county.

Nita Wiggins, a retired Durham city employee, said Tuesday she had voted for Nifong.

“I don’t agree with some of the decisions he’s made in the case, but I have to believe that he’s doing what he feels is correct,” Wiggins said. “I still wish he hadn’t … answered any questions (from the media) because it just kind of makes us look bad, and we’re really not a racially divided town.”

Other voters were critical of Nifong’s actions.

“I don’t think he did his job,” said Antonia Weeks, a writer who has lived in Durham for 29 years. “I don’t know who did what, and I’m not pretending to know, but I’ve seen a lot of cases handled in this community, and I’ve never seen one handled this way before.”

Duke canceled the remainder of the season for the highly ranked team last month following allegations that a black woman was raped and beaten by three white men at a team party where she had been hired to strip.

A grand jury has indicted two players on charges of rape, kidnapping and sexual assault. Nifong has said he hopes to charge a third person.

On the Net:

Duke: http://www.duke.edu

AP-ES-05-02-06 2131EDT