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CAMPAIGN 2010 | ACROSS THE COUNTRY

Senate hopefuls employ quirky tactics in Alaska

One features endorsement by late senator

By Donovan Slack
Globe Staff / October 31, 2010

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ANCHORAGE — Even in a race packed with peculiar twists, the political endorsement from the Great Beyond stands out. Iconic Alaska statesman Ted Stevens, wearing a fuzzy blue vest and a bolo tie in a television spot, implores voters to back incumbent Senator Lisa Murkowski.

Stevens, a US senator for 40 years, died in a plane crash in August, but his pitch filmed 10 days before his death lives on for a candidate who has emerged as a contender.

The reprise of Murkowski, who is cobbling together a write-in campaign after being beaten in the GOP primary, is the biggest surprise in a series of shocks that have rocked the frontier politics of Alaska. Here, the three-way race for US Senate has the feel of surreal political theater, at times enthralling and baffling voters.

The winner of the Republican primary, Joe Miller, has an ad showing him walking through the woods in a lumberjack shirt, wielding moose antlers — he asserts that Murkowski changes positions on issues more often than moose shed their antlers (which, according to the National Park Service, is every fall, after the breeding season).

On the Democratic ticket, former commercial fisherman Scott McAdams is working hard to grab attention, with ads that spoof his time working on a fishing boat with a Norwegian captain.

“After you’ve been cursed at in Norwegian, you can take on anyone,’’ he says in one spot.

And Murkowski is distributing fliers with pictures of cows and skis in an effort to teach voters how to spell her name.

“It’s a very interesting race, no question; a lot of fun,’’ said Carl Shepro, a political science professor at the University of Alaska in Anchorage.

The fun aside, the race is turning into a bare-fisted rematch between Miller and Murkowski, with polls suggesting that they are in a statistical dead heat in the mid-30s and McAdams in the mid-20s. It has several intriguing subplots, including one pitting the Old Guard of the Republican Party in the names of Murkowski and Stevens against the vanguard melding of Tea Party movement and GOP ideas, championed by Miller and his backer, Sarah Palin, the former governor.

In addition, the race has history-making potential. If Murkowski wins, she would be the first candidate in the country to win a write-in bid for US senator since Strom Thurmond from South Carolina in 1954.

To Alaskans, though, what matters is how the next senator will deal with federal funding, regulations, and land use. The federal government owns 60 percent of the state’s 375 million acres and much of it is set aside as national parkland or dedicated to resource protection and fish and wildlife preservation. Many Alaskans contend federal rules unnecessarily constrain everything from the livelihoods of fishermen and loggers to the oil and gas rights of companies, including some that want to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Miller, a father of eight from Fairbanks and a friend of Palin’s husband, Todd, is appealing to those Alaskans, saying he wants to return federal lands and programs to state control. He also wants to wean Alaska from its reliance on federal money — nearly 40 percent of the economy relies on it. His message has resonated with an independent sensibility indigenous to the state nicknamed “the last frontier.’’

In an interview, Miller said his push to make Alaska self-sufficient does not mean he wants to cut off federal funding immediately, or Social Security benefits for the elderly, as his opponents have suggested.

“It’s critical that we look internally in this state to create jobs because we know at some point the funding will end or will be limited,’’ he said at a restaurant.

But the specter of cutting off federal funding has energized its recipients. Several native tribal organizations have formed a super political action committee called Alaskans Standing Together, which has sunk $1 million into supporting Murkowski. The organizations, known as native corporations, are for-profit companies that receive no-bid federal contracts. They accounted for nine of the top 10 companies in the state last year, according to Alaska Business Monthly.

An Anchorage lawyer and mother of two teen boys, Murkowski, 53, was appointed to the Senate in 2002 by her father, Frank, who had left the Senate to become governor of Alaska. She had been a state lawmaker for 14 years.

In the US Senate, she is vice chairwoman of the Senate Republican Conference, the fifth-highest party leadership position in the Senate. And she also serves as ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

She is emphasizing those positions in her reelection campaign, saying she can do more for Alaska than her opponents.

Murkowski said in an interview that she is excited about her prospects.

“I’m just very energized,’’ she said. “I’ve been truly all over the state in the past week, and the energy level, the momentum is tangible.’’

She could face some problems with the tabulation of write-in ballots. Murkowski’s opponents could challenge each write-in vote that is not spelled properly or is irregular.

Election officials will rule based on voter intent, potentially echoing the hanging chads debacle in Florida after the 2000 presidential race.

An informal survey of a dozen Alaskans in downtown Anchorage last week found four out of 12 could not spell Murkowski correctly. “M-u-r-c-o-s-k-i-e?’’ “M-u-r-k-i-o-s-i.’’ “M-u-r-k-s-k-i?’’

“Can I have a hint?’’ asked Steven Libardi, a 35-year-old Anchorage resident manning a skin care kiosk in the Fifth Avenue mall.

A construction worker outside got it right. Duane Shockley, 42, said he has seen Murkowski signs all over town, but he also credited his heritage.

“I’m a little bit Polish,’’ he said.

McAdams, who has steered clear of the Miller-Murkowski battle, gave up his job as mayor of Sitka, an island community in southeast Alaska, to run for Senate. He is a burly former football coach whose tribal name, Keét Yiyaágu, means “Boat Size Killer Whale.’’

In a Winnebago plastered with McAdams signs, the Democrat said in an interview that Alaska “is more than the stereotype one might draw from the Palin experience.’’ He said there are lots of voters who embrace the traditional Democratic ideals that he espouses —“community-minded Alaskans that don’t buy into this Joe Miller view of the world.’’

As for his ad bragging about his ability to withstand a cursing out by a Norwegian captain, he said, “We try to have a sense of humor here.’’

“We’re certainly not trying to run a standup comedy routine here, but we’re having fun,’’ he said.

Donovan Slack can be reached at dslack@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @DonovanSlack.

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