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ANCHORAGE - U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens faced a cheering crowd of Republicans on Monday and declared his innocence to federal criminal charges, while his main Democratic rival announced his own GOP fan club.
Stevens, the Senate's longest-serving Republican, pleaded not guilty last week to seven counts of failing to disclose more than $250,000 in gifts and home renovations.
But for now, the 84-year-old senator told supporters, his re-election campaign is moving full speed for the Aug. 26 primary. He said he expects to be vindicated before the November general election, thanks to a speedy trial he requested.
Stevens has a trial date next month in Washington, D.C., but on Monday his lawyers officially filed paperwork in U.S. District Court to move the trial to Alaska.
Stevens' legal team argues most of the witnesses are in Alaska, and it would be a hardship for him to campaign with the trial in Washington. Government prosecutors allege, however, that the actual Senate disclosure forms were filed in Washington, and they will fly witnesses to the district.
"By scheduling the trial for next month, this court has made it possible for all Alaskans to know the facts of this case and make up their own minds," Stevens told the crowd. "They will be the ultimate jury before they cast their votes in November."
More than 100 campaign staffers, volunteers and other supporters warmly greeted Stevens after his return from Washington. A procession of motorcycles accompanied his arrival to his Anchorage campaign office, where the whistling, merry throng waited.
"We're with you, Ted!" several people called out.
Stevens told the crowd his spirits are high, and he believes he will be vindicated.
Despite the indictment, Stevens said he's running for re-election because he feels his mission for Alaska is not yet complete.
The crowd broke out into a chant of "six more years."
"Or 12," a man shouted after the noise died down.
Alaska is facing huge challenges, Stevens said, including the pressing need to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, given the nation's energy crisis. He noted he has the "ability and experience to deal with those challenges as no one else can."
Stevens, however, acknowledged his vulnerability this election year.
"I pray every night, and I hope you'll pray every night," he said. "Let's get the Lord's help in this job. We need help."