Alaska might seem like the last place where Democrats would have a shot at stealing a Senate seat from the Republicans.
The state has not had a Democratic senator since the Carter administration. Republicans outnumber Democrats nearly 2-to-1. And the Senate seat in play is held by the daughter of one of Alaska's most powerful politicians.
But the contest between GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski and former Gov. Tony Knowles has emerged as a key race in the Democrats' attempt to retake control of the Senate.
Democrats believe Knowles' popularity from his two terms as governor and his pro-oil development views in this energy-rich state put him in perfect position to pull off an upset against Murkowski, who also faces a tough primary battle.
Republicans are doing their part to keep the seat. A parade of big-name politicians has visited Alaska to stump for Murkowski, including Vice President Dick Cheney and Treasury Secretary John Snow.
"It's a seat that is going to be competitive. We know that Democrats are heavily targeting it," said Dan Allen, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Knowles, 61, and Murkowski, 47, are two of the biggest political names in Alaska. Knowles served as mayor of Anchorage for six years in the 1980s and was governor from 1995 to 2003. Murkowski served in the Legislature for four years before being appointed by her father, Gov. Frank Murkowski, to the Senate seat he vacated when he was elected governor in 2002.
The debate over opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling has become a prominent issue in the race. The refuge represents the biggest untapped oil reserve in the United States.
Most Alaskans support opening the refuge, so the question is which candidate has the better chance of winning its passage in the Senate, where the proposal has been defeated by Democrats.
An ad sponsored by the GOP Senatorial Committee highlights Democratic opposition to drilling in the refuge and links Knowles with Massachusetts Sens. Ted Kennedy and John Kerry, who "wouldn't know a caribou if it dropped in for a bowl of Boston clam chowder."
Knowles favors energy exploration in the refuge and has battled Senate Democrats over the issue. He has also fought Democrats over incentives for a proposed $20 billion pipeline to deliver natural gas from Alaska's North Slope to the Lower 48 states.
He says Murkowski has not done enough in the Senate to help the pipeline become a reality.
"Lisa rolled over on the natural gas pipeline. Tony stood up on ANWR," said Knowles spokesman Matt McKenna.
Murkowski and Knowles have attacked each other in recent weeks over the involvement of out-of-state groups in their campaigns - an important issue in a state where challenging a candidate's Alaska credentials is standard political practice. (Knowles was born in Oklahoma and moved here after graduating from Yale in 1968; Murkowski was born and raised in Alaska.)
Murkowski began a radio ad campaign recently taking Knowles to task for hiring "outsiders" to work on his campaign. The ad was in response to a Knowles TV commercial in which a former state representative accuses the Murkowski campaign of letting "shadowy outside" groups involve themselves in Alaska politics.
"Alaska is a unique place," said Murkowski spokesman Elliott Bundy. "A lot of people take pride in the fact that they live here. I think it's important for people to feel like a candidate is truly invested in the state."
But Knowles' spokesman said voters are more concerned about who can improve the economy. "They don't care who has lived here longer," McKenna said.
Murkowski first has to get through the Aug. 24 primary. Her leading opponent is former state Senate President Mike Miller, who says Murkowski is not conservative enough and calls it a "scandal" that her father appointed her to the Senate.
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