MANLEY HOT SPRINGS - Democrat Fran Ulmer has taken her campaign off the road in an effort to shore up essential votes in Bush Alaska.
A boat trip down the Tanana and Yukon rivers last week took the lieutenant governor to this small mining town where no gubernatorial candidate has set foot in 20 years.
"Seem like she's got a lot on the ball," said Bill Lee, owner of the Manley Hot Springs Lodge, where Ulmer ate during a stop. "I had no idea who she was until she introduced herself."
Ulmer has been campaigning hard and early in an effort to gain some ground on Republican Frank Murkowski, who Democrats concede holds a 10-point advantage in early polling.
Murkowski has been a fixture in Alaska politics, serving for 22 years as the one of the state's two Republican U.S. senators.
His strongest support is in the Railbelt between Fairbanks and the Kenai Peninsula, an area where Ulmer is weakest. Anchorage, both sides concede, is a battleground.
But the Ulmer camp also sees Bush Alaska, which makes up just 20 percent of the state's voters, as vital to a win in the Nov. 5 general election.
Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles and Ulmer carried the rural Alaska vote in 1994 and 1998, but it's not a certainty.
Rural Alaska has repeatedly supported Murkowski for re-election to the Senate and has elected a Republican to the state House.
"It's a mistake to think the Bush votes on party lines," said Johne Binkley, a former Republican legislator who represented this Yukon River region. He traveled with Murkowski to Bethel in late June.
During her 400-mile trip down portions of the Tanana and Yukon rivers, Ulmer stopped in Nenana, Manley Hot Springs, Minto, Tanana, Ruby and Galena, shaking hands and introducing herself.
Janie Leask, co-chairperson of the Ulmer campaign, said winning the Bush vote will mean outlining the differences between Ulmer and Murkowski on subsistence and other issues key to rural Alaska.
Ulmer's stance on rural issues such as education funding, a rural subsistence priority and economic development are not dramatically different from Murkowski's. It's the details that separate the two.
Murkowski says he also favors an amendment to the state constitution to give rural residents a priority over other Alaskans in use of fish and wildlife. But he has blasted the decision by the Knowles-Ulmer administration not to appeal the Katie John lawsuit to the U.S. Supreme Court.
That case stripped the state of its authority over subsistence fishing on many Alaska rivers.
On economic development, both Ulmer and Murkowski back the state's big resource developments, such as a natural gas pipeline from the North Slope and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Evon Peter, chief of Arctic Village, where there is strong opposition to drilling in ANWR, accompanied Ulmer on her river trip. He said her stance on subsistence, as well as her interest in working with tribal governments, won his support despite her backing of ANWR.
"It would be hard to imagine a significant Republican vote from Alaska Natives," Peter said.
But there is division among Alaska Natives, and numerous executives from Native corporations have donated to Murkowski.
Oliver Leavitt, a vice president of Barrow-based Arctic Slope Regional Corp. and a longtime leader on the North Slope, is co-chairman of Murkowski's campaign.
Leavitt did not return repeated telephone calls from the Anchorage Daily News in recent weeks. An assistant said Monday he had no comment.
Leask, who is former president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, downplayed the divisions in Native leadership. She said that because Murkowski will be in power as senator or governor after the election, many prominent Natives are supporting him.
"It's hard to (come out) against someone in power whether they win or lose," Leask said. "That's why you don't see a lot of Native leaders out there supporting Fran."
There are 16 candidates vying for governor on the Aug. 27 primary ballot. They include Republican Wayne Anthony Ross, an Anchorage attorney, and former Democratic state lawmaker Nels Anderson Jr. of Dillingham, who recently switched to the Alaskan Independence Party.
Also on the ballot is Michael Beasley of Fairbanks, a Democrat who has made several runs at a seat in the U.S. Senate.