Democrat Tony Knowles, a two-term Alaska governor and former mayor of Anchorage, will run for a U.S. Senate seat in 2004, he said.
In a long-anticipated announcement, the 60-year-old Knowles said Alaska needs a strong voice in both political parties defending the state in Washington, D.C.
Knowles is seeking the seat now held by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Anchorage Republican appointed by her father, Gov. Frank Murkowski, last year after he took office and resigned his Senate seat.
Lisa Murkowski, who is working hard to dissuade an expected GOP challenge, said she expects a tough race from Knowles, a veteran of three statewide races. Knowles lost his bid for governor in 1990 before narrowly winning in a crowded gubernatorial field in 1994.
"I fully expect he will be a formidable challenger," Lisa Murkowski said Tuesday.
Murkowski's campaign has raised an estimated $900,000 and she is working to convince other Republicans to stay out of the primary, she said.
Senate Democrats have been courting Knowles to seek a seat that the party hasn't held since 1981. Democrats point to races in Alaska, Illinois and Pennsylvania in their bid to pick up seats.
Republicans control the Senate by a 51-48 majority, with one Democratic-leaning independent. In all, there are 34 seats on the ballot in 2004, with 19 held by Democrats and 15 held by Republicans.
Democrats have urged him to run for the Senate, and he has traveled to Washington to meet with strategists as well as potential donors, according to several officials. Knowles has been seen as the Democrats' best chance for winning the seat.
"He is one of the best candidates so far to announce his candidacy in the country," Senate Democrat Leader Tom Daschle said to reporters in Washington. "Well, we'll do anything that Governor Knowles requests of us."
Frank Murkowski held the seat for 21 years before stepping down to become governor. He angered many within the state GOP after passing over several prominent Republicans to appoint his daughter, a two-term state representative from Anchorage who had built a reputation as a moderate Republican.
Since taking office in December, Lisa Murkowski has supported a ban on partial birth abortions favored by conservatives and has backed President Bush on key issues, said Alaska Republican Party co-chair Randy Ruedrich. She's in step with Alaska's mainstream Republicans, he said.
Still, several Republicans have not ruled out a primary fight in 2004, among them Teamster Leader Jerry Hood.
A final decision on whether to run is expected by the end of the month, Hood said. "I think a Hood/Knowles race would, number one, be very exciting," he said.
The nepotism issue is still talked about in his travels around the state, Hood said, but it isn't expected to be a major campaign issue.
Sen. Ted Stevens has pledged support for Murkowski's making a primary fight very tough for a challenger, said David Dittman, a Republican pollster.
"I think it would be hard to raise money against her on the Republican side," Dittman said.
Democrats aren't expecting Knowles to face the same primary fight that Murkowski could face. "I think likely this will probably freeze the field," said Scott Sterling, chairman of the Alaska Democratic Party.
But Democrats are hoping that voters still stinging from deep budget cuts imposed by Gov. Murkowski and the Republican-controlled Legislature will remember, Sterling said.
Republicans ran on the same platform and, "I think people are beginning to ask some serious questions about what's going on in politics in this state," Sterling said.
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