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NC entrepreneur in close primary with 'Idol' singer Clay Aiken dies at home in possible fall

FILE - In this May 6, 2014 file photo, Clay Aiken speaks to supporters during an election night watch party in Holly Springs, N.C. Aiken won what had been a hotly contested Democratic primary for a North Carolina congressional seat according to a final, unofficial vote count that was posted Tuesday, May 13, 2014, a day after the accidental death of his closest rival. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)

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FILE - In this May 6, 2014 file photo, Clay Aiken speaks to supporters during an election night watch party in Holly Springs, N.C. Aiken won what had been a hotly contested Democratic primary for a North Carolina congressional seat according to a final, unofficial vote count that was posted Tuesday, May 13, 2014, a day after the accidental death of his closest rival. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)

RALEIGH, N.C. - Former "American Idol" singer Clay Aiken praised the North Carolina entrepreneur who died as he trailed him in a too-close-to-call Democratic primary for a Congressional seat, saying Keith Crisco never forgot his humble beginnings.

Crisco, 71, died Monday after an accidental fall at his home in Asheboro, about 65 miles west of Raleigh, according to a statement from his family.

Aiken was leading Crisco by fewer than 400 votes after the contest last Tuesday.

"Keith came from humble beginnings. No matter how high he rose - to Harvard, to the White House and to the Governor's Cabinet - he never forgot where he came from," Aiken said in a statement. "He was a gentleman, a good and honourable man and an extraordinary public servant. I was honoured to know him."

If enough new votes turn up to make Crisco the winner, local Democrats would select a new nominee, state elections board spokesman Josh Lawson said. If not, Aiken will be the nominee, he said. The vote is expected to be certified Thursday.

The nominee will face Republican incumbent Renee Ellmers in November in the GOP-leaning 2nd Congressional District.

Crisco had been North Carolina's top business recruiter for four years under former Gov. Beverly Perdue, who left office in 2013.

"I asked him to ... be Commerce secretary during the worst economic times since the Great Depression," Perdue said in a statement. "He accepted that responsibility without hesitation because he loved this state and wanted to help when times were hard."

Crisco was born to a Republican family on a Stanly County dairy farm in North Carolina, he said in an interview last month.

"I did pull corn. I did plow. I did milk cows. I did do all the things you do on a small farm," Crisco said.

He got a scholarship to study science at the county's Pfeiffer University. There, he met his wife and her family of yellow-dog Democrats, and Crisco said he converted.

He went to Harvard University to study for a master's of business administration, which he received in 1968, then returned to North Carolina to work for textile giant Burlington Industries. In the early 1970s, Crisco was selected as a White House Fellow, and he spent a year in President Richard Nixon's Commerce Department.

In 1986, Crisco and partners formed Asheboro Elastics to produce elastics for home furnishings and medical and industrial uses. He joked that the company's mission was to "hold your underwear up." The company was renamed AEC Narrow Fabrics and is now run by hired executives, his sons and a son-in-law.

Crisco's business success allowed him to lend more than $500,000 to his campaign against Aiken, according to financial statements filed last month.

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