SITKA - One of the three Democrats running for governor said Saturday that the party needs to unite behind a favored candidate in the coming weeks for a real shot at winning back the governor's office.
Bob Poe said it's unlikely that Democrats will emerge united from a hard-fought primary. And while the race among the three hasn't gotten dirty or shown any clear signs of fracturing the party, Poe said the eventual Democrat will need time to raise money to effectively challenge Gov. Sean Parnell, who he believes will win the Republican primary.
He told the party faithful Saturday that Democrats need to unite behind someone by June, or sooner. "If you're sitting on the fence, this is not the time to do that," he said.
Democrats are fielding what many see as their deepest bench of candidates in years, providing them an opportunity to win back the governor's office for the first time since Tony Knowles left in 2002. There's Poe, with extensive public and private sector experience; state Sen. Hollis French, who oversaw the Troopergate investigation into then-Gov. Sarah Palin's firing of her public safety commissioner; and former longtime state lawmaker Ethan Berkowitz.
Poe said he'd be "deeply proud" to be the nominee and believes he's more than up to the task. But he said more important is just getting a Democrat elected.
French and Berkowitz agreed on that last point and said Democratic unity is important. But Berkowitz wasn't buying a June unification. In an interview, he said everyone has the right to run, and that ideas will win out.
Senate Majority Leader Johnny Ellis, a French supporter, said Democrats "don't try to control people" or get them in lockstep. He's not worried, given the tone of the campaign so far, that Democrats will emerge from the August primary divided or wounded.
Campaign buttons for the three gleamed from scattered lapels and pullovers Saturday.
David Watts, 62, of Fairbanks, was sporting a Berkowitz button. Watts said he's known Berkowitz for a long time - giving him an advantage, in his mind, over the others whom he doesn't know personally - and is impressed with Berkowitz's political know-how and work in developing the party over the years.
However, all the Democrats running are "talented, experienced, mature, capable," Watts said.
Poe told The Associated Press there have been two meetings among the candidates in which they've agreed to "rules of engagement," but he said there's been no trigger set for when one, or any, might get out of the race to allow another to advance unimpeded. He couldn't say, for himself, at what point he might be willing to step aside.
"If I feel at some point that I'm not convincing people, I may have to make that decision," he said. But he plans to continue working to convince them that he's the better candidate. He's been campaigning now for about 16 months and is still trying to boost his name recognition and profile. He wears a button of his own: "I Know Bob Poe," with the "Know" crossed out and the word "Am" scrawled above it, as an icebreaker of sorts.
There's a lot at stake for whoever advances: Alaska has seen its unemployment rate climb to its highest levels since the early 1990s; there's uncertainty surrounding the prospects for a major natural gas pipeline, which has long been held out as a way to shore up state revenues as oil production declines; and there are questions about what the state should do to increase its energy and economy security.
Parnell is hoping to win outright the office he inherited when Palin quit last summer, but some political analysts don't see his advancing to the November election as automatic. His challengers include former state legislator Ralph Samuels and Anchorage attorney Bill Walker.
A gas pipeline has become a major issue on the Republican side, as has state spending levels. Samuels in particular has hammered Parnell on the size of the operating budget, which the Legislature passed at more than $8 billion.
Parnell is mulling a separate, nearly $3.1 billion omnibus capital spending bill that he has said he's prepared to cut.