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ANCHORAGE - Sen. Frank Murkowski has backed out of a gubernatorial candidate forum this week in Fairbanks.
Murkowski had said he would appear at the Tanana Valley State Fair on Thursday, facing off against Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer, the top Democrat in the race.
Instead, he'll debate fellow Republican Wayne Anthony Ross at a luncheon speech Thursday at the Petroleum Club in Anchorage. Murkowski faces Ross in the Aug. 27 Republican primary.
Democrat Ulmer's campaign staff was miffed Monday, saying Murkowski backed out of a commitment to appear at the Fairbanks event.
Meanwhile, Ross, who has been struggling to draw attention to his campaign, was thrilled that Murkowski would stay in Anchorage. Ross complains that Murkowski, a U.S. senator, has been staying in Washington, D.C., to avoid the primary campaign.
"You mean we're actually going to see the phantom campaigner?" Ross asked.
Murkowski's staff had told reporters and Ulmer that he planned to be at the Tanana Valley Fair, a traditional forum that has drawn a crowd of would-be governors.
Sixteen candidates have entered the governor's race this year. Linda Witt of the League of Women Voters, which is organizing the forum, said all were invited last month.
But Ross said he did not receive his fair invitation until last week and already had promised to speak to an Anchorage Republican women's luncheon at the Petroleum Club.
Murkowski campaign spokesman Dan Saddler said Murkowski changed plans so that he could appear with Ross.
Four candidates have entered the race for governor as Republicans. Murkowski holds a big lead, pollsters say. Ross is a distant second.
"We're going where Ross is. He's our man," Saddler said.
The other Republican candidates are Brad Snowden and Eric Weiler.
Ulmer and Murkowski have been attempting to organize a series of debates before the general election Nov. 5. Ulmer campaign manager Jim Nordlund said he spoke with Murkowski campaign manager Bill Gordon about two weeks ago, to match schedules.
"I said we're going to be there in Fairbanks. Gordon said, 'OK, we're going to be there too,' " Nordlund recalled. "Now, the first thing we're going to try to negotiate, they pull out."