Republican slugfest in primaries begins

Alaska editorial

Posted: Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Lt. Gov. Loren Leman made it clear this week that he's not the governor's man. The state's second executive - who many people suspect wants to be its chief executive - made official what a wayward e-mail had already outed: He's backing Mike Miller for the Republican Senate nomination.

Ideologically, this is no surprise. The lieutenant governor is a friend, political ally and philosophical kindred spirit of the former state Senate president.

Politically, it's not much of a surprise either, and that's not good news for Gov. Frank Murkowski. The governor doesn't appear to pack much swack with either the Legislature or his second in command. During the 2002 campaign and even during his first year in office he appeared to be calling more of the shots. He didn't always get his way, but he was a force.

Now the Legislature shrugs at his veto threats and his lieutenant governor figures there's little price to pay for parting ways with the Republican mainstream. The governor is losing his grip on the party line - and just when he was beginning to make fiscal sense in defiance of his campaign rhetoric.

Whether it's bad news for Sen. Lisa Murkowski is an open question. Will Loren Leman's endorsement help Mr. Miller? Probably, but how much? The lieutenant governor has a low bar to clear to make a difference, because Mr. Miller is so far behind. Sen. Murkowski was her father's appointment but is not her father's surrogate and has the party's powers that be firmly in her camp. If you were a statewide Alaska candidate and had a choice between the endorsement of Loren Leman and Ted Stevens, whom would you choose? Sen. Murkowski is still holding the high cards.

Tony Knowles is grinning. A Republican slugfest in the primary suits Mr. Knowles and the Democrats. While Sen. Murkowski and Mr. Miller play righter-than-thou up and down the Railbelt, Mr. Knowles can fortify his strength in rural and Southeast Alaska before turning full attention this fall to the urban vote.

But Mr. Knowles better make sure that grin doesn't reflect gloat. Bank on this no matter who wins the GOP primary: If Tony Knowles is ahead in the polls, warring Alaska Republicans will hold hands and sing "It's A Small World After All" if that's what it takes to beat him. Some of their own grins may be as rigid as far-right dogma, but they'll cheese and squeeze to keep that Senate seat.

Speculation aside, what this boils down to for most Alaskans is democracy. The GOP's hard right wing is a potent force and the base for both Mr. Miller and Lt. Gov. Leman. The former's candidacy and the latter's endorsement jibe with their professed beliefs. It's their right to run.

Let 'er rip.

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