ANCHORAGE - A month before the primary election that will decide candidates for congressional races, Alaska Democrats are asking a question: Where is Sean Parnell?
Alaska's lieutenant governor in March stepped boldly into the U.S. House race, startling Republican state convention delegates by announcing he would challenge 18-term incumbent Don Young, who was in the audience.
Young's chance for a 19th term has been damaged by federal investigations into his fundraising activities, and his spending of more than a $1 million in campaign funds on legal fees. He's perceived to be vulnerable.
But with decision-time looming, Democrats are targeting Parnell, accusing him of ducking campaign forums where he can be grilled on issues.
"We need to know who he is and what he stands for," said Democratic Party Chairwoman Patti Higgins. "We're not getting that."
That may be the perception in Anchorage, Parnell said Thursday, but it's not reality.
"I find it kind of humorous that people think that," Parnell said. "We've been in campaign mode since mid-March."
The lieutenant governor last Sunday opted to join Gov. Sarah Palin at her annual picnic in Fairbanks rather than face Young and potential Democratic opponents in a candidate forum in Anchorage sponsored by the Alaska Women's Political Caucus.
That had to do with a scheduling change, Parnell said. The event was switched from Saturday to accommodate Young, Parnell said.
"I was already committed to be in Fairbanks that day," he said.
Through June 30, Parnell had spent less on his campaign than Republicans Young and Gabrielle LeDoux, as well as Democrats Ethan Berkowitz and Diane Benson.
But he's been spending time raising money and visiting Alaska communities, he said. He attended Fourth of July celebrations in Juneau and Nome, Colony Days in Palmer and he plans to attend Progress Days in Soldotna and the Southeast Alaska State Fair in Haines over the weekend.
"We've been working to get out in the communities and spent time meeting people one-on-one," he said.
As for his low profile in Anchorage, "It probably has to do with the fact that we haven't been on television," he said.
That changed Thursday, with Parnell beginning advertising campaigns on radio and television.
"We had to raise money from individuals to do that," he said. "Now that we have been able to do that successfully, we have a lot of volunteers around us, we think it's time to get the message out through the airwaves."
His decision to skip the candidates' forum gave Higgins ammo in her claim that he's avoiding hard questions.
"You never see him," Higgins said. "You can't ask him questions in an open forum."
She called the former state senator a "big unknown."
Was that an indication that Democrats, who have not succeeded in electing an Alaskan to national office since Mike Gravel in 1974, might prefer their candidate to face Young than the squeaky clean lieutenant governor who enjoys the support of his popular boss, Palin?
"I don't want to second-guess the Republicans," Higgins said. "They have the right to put forth their best candidate. I would just like to know who we're facing."
The next four weeks will offer plenty of face-to-face time, Parnell said. He's scheduled for at least four more candidate forums in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Soldotna.
Young did not return phone calls seeking comment.
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