It's supposed to be a show of unity before Alaska sends 29 delegates to the Republican National Convention this summer.
Instead, Alaska's GOP convention this weekend in Anchorage could be anything but if efforts play out to oust party chairman Randy Ruedrich, a man who paid the state's largest ethics fine after being exposed by Sarah Palin long before she became governor.
The rift remains wide as Palin and Ruedrich have not spoken since she became governor 16 months ago, and it looms as a potential hindrance for the party, lawmakers and party members said.
If Ruedrich is booted, some say it would be another step toward removing the state's old guard. Many Republicans say that element needs to go if the party is to regain the public's trust. Already, the GOP has had three former state lawmakers convicted of bribery and two-thirds of the congressional delegation is under federal investigation.
But others contend the effort to have Ruedrich resign two years before his term expires is disruptive and counterproductive to the convention's mission: to elect delegates for the national convention and two new national committee members.
While some may characterize it as a healthy family spat, others see this potential attempt to dump the state chairman as symptomatic of bigger issues within the party.
"This effort is very consistent to the movement you're seeing within the Republican Party nationwide, said John J. Pitney, a former researcher at the Republican National Committee who teaches government at Claremont McKenna College.
"The Republican brand has suffered from corruption issues," he said. "It's a major reason John McCain became the (GOP presidential) nominee. It's their best chance to remove the taint of corruption."
Efforts to have Ruedrich step down underscore already troubling times for the state's Republican Party and its overall political climate.
Three former Republican lawmakers have been convicted of federal bribery charges, and one more awaits trial. Two others - including U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens' son, Ben, the state party's national committeeman and former state Senate president - remain under investigation but have not been charged. The chief of staff for Palin's predecessor pleaded guilty to a federal wire fraud charge this month.
Last Friday, a regional party chairman, Joe Miller of Fairbanks, mailed fliers urging delegates to support a change that would put Vice Chair Cathy Giessel in charge. He said it takes two-thirds of those attending to suspend party rules and force Ruedrich out.
Giessel declined to comment on the prospects of a vote. She said thus far more than 400 of the possible 550 state delegates have registered for the convention, the largest registration ever.
Miller says the beleaguered party needs a new direction and that starts with a leader who supports Palin.
It was Palin who exposed Ruedrich for ethical violations five years ago when both served on Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
Ruedrich admitted leaking a confidential memo to an energy company lobbyist and conducting partisan political activity from his state office. That led to a $12,000 penalty, believed to be the state's largest civil fine for an ethics case.
Ruedrich resigned from the commission in 2004, but he kept his position with the party, and was re-elected chairman in 2006. He's declined to discuss Miller's efforts other than to say he has no plans to step down before his term expires in 2010.
State Rep. Mike Kelly of Fairbanks last summer called for Ruedrich to step down, saying the party needed a fresh start. Miller says since then, he's rallied additional support from key Republican lawmakers.
One of those is state Rep. John Coghill of North Pole. Coghill won't criticize Ruedrich, but says a change is needed.
"If you look at all the Republicans who have ended up in trouble over the last couple of years, fresh leadership would be good," Coghill said. "If we don't change, then everybody who wants to have a Republican name behind him, the party becomes of less value to candidates as we stand right now."
But not all Republican lawmakers side with Kelly and Coghill. State Rep. Jay Ramras, of Fairbanks, says any effort to force Ruedrich out will create more division.
"I think it's incredibly divisive, distracting and demoralizing because it ignores the process of election cycles," Ramras said. "It shows a base level of immaturity; it's not the hallmark of a healthy debate."
Delegates will have the final say whether there's a weekend coup. Elections are scheduled Saturday afternoon.
"It's not divisive and you're not starting trouble when you're doing something right," said Nick Stepovich, a Fairbanks delegate. "That's all that's happening here. Let's get the right thing done, get the right leadership."
But delegate Frank McQueary, of Anchorage, said Ruedrich has kept the GOP ahead of the Democrats and should not continually be punished.
"I don't think an attempt to oust Randy really has any legs," McQueary said. "The real mission of this convention is to talk about the future. As far as I'm concerned, Randy has two good years left."
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