Murkowski struggles in battle for re-election

Many say Republican incumbent a long shot for second term

Posted: Tuesday, August 08, 2006

JUNEAU - Gov. Frank Murkowski threaded his way through rows of empty chairs and the handful of people who had gathered at the convention center, joining his natural gas pipeline team at the center of the circle.

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The public comment period for Murkowski's proposed gas contract was winding down that mid-July day, and starting in Juneau, the governor and his team were making one last statewide push to hear back from Alaskans on the deal.

As he stood to speak, he looked over the small crowd and saw that his own staff outnumbered regular Alaskans.

"I'm really disappointed there aren't more people here," he said.

His exasperation showed. Building a pipeline to Canada is one of the most important decisions since statehood, and nailing down the terms between the state and Alaska's three largest oil companies would be an important step in getting there.

Plus, it's the centerpiece of Murkowski's re-election campaign.

Murkowski wants to be the governor who seals the deal. It's the reason the 73-year-old Republican governor decided to run one more campaign and cap his decades-long career as a U.S. senator and governor.

But he seems to find resistance at every turn.

An uneasy Legislature is wary that Murkowski wants to give up too much to reach that goal, to the point that most say they won't ratify his contract as presented. Action in this special session all but ensures the governor won't get support for the contract before the Aug. 22 primary election.

And as in Juneau, the crowds were thin for Murkowski's road shows on the gas contract. The exceptions were towns directly affected by the route of the pipeline - Fairbanks and Valdez - and Anchorage, the home of most of the state's oil company employees.

Murkowski continues to hammer away at legislators and the public to take the deal. Despite its perceived flaws, that contract may be the Murkowski's best chance to reclaim the Republican party nomination.

Murkowski is considered a long shot by many because of a rocky first term. By most accounts, he is one of the most unpopular governors in Alaska's short history.

Murkowski himself acknowledges he can be, well, obstinate. After announcing his candidacy, his campaign ran a mea culpa ad in which the governor says, "I've made nearly the entire state of Alaska mad at me" at one time or another and jokes that maybe he should consider a "personality transplant."

Murkowski campaign manager Mike Scott said when people meet Murkowski, they want to know whether he really wants another term as governor. When they hear his passion, and that he's put some of his own money into his campaign, they believe it, Scott said.

"He has skin in the game and that sends a loud message to those that support him," Scott said.

Four years ago, Murkowski breezed to easy victories in the Republican primary and the general election. He took 70 percent of the vote in the primary and nearly 56 percent in the general election against Democrat Fran Ulmer. He ended a 22-year Senate career midterm to become governor, appointing his daughter Lisa to serve in his place.

That appointment was the first in a series of actions that cut short his honeymoon period as governor. Before the price of oil started to rise, he made a series of difficult budget cuts for which he took a lot of heat, including ending the longevity bonus dividend paid to Alaska seniors, a program that was being phased out anyway.

He was scorned for trying to use Permanent Fund earnings to pay for state services in 2004. Then two members of his cabinet, Attorney General Gregg Renkes and Commerce Commissioner Edgar Blatchford, resigned under ethical clouds the next year.

But for detractors, the very symbol of Murkowski's stubbornness became his fight to acquire a state jet. The governor first tried to use federal Homeland Security money. When that failed, he tried a legislative appropriation. That didn't work either.

He bought the jet anyway, using a little-known line of state credit with Key Bank.

Much of that history would be wiped clean if Murkowski can convince Alaskans that he is the governor to bring the state a gas pipeline, which would ensure a continuous flow of cash to the oil-dependent state for decades to come.

Murkowski's re-election bid finds him in a much different situation than the one he faced in those easy election victories in 2002. He faces two strong opponents in Sarah Palin of Wasilla and John Binkley in Fairbanks, and the Republican primary promises to be one of the most competitive elections in recent Alaskan history.

Murkowski filed his candidacy soon before the June 1 deadline. The late start gave his opponents a head start in raising money. It also gave them a chance to prepare. When he jumped in, Palin and Binkley were ready. Binkley in particular has made an issue of Murkowski's "failed leadership" and says the public's loss of trust has led Alaskans to mistrust the governor.

But Murkowski has a major advantage Palin and Binkley don't, the power of incumbency.

Since he announced his candidacy, Murkowski's press office, which is separate from the campaign, has been working overtime. Press releases have been cranked out the past two months at three times the rate of all the past year.

From June 2005 through May this year, the governor's office distributed an average 12 press releases per month. Murkowski announced his candidacy on May 26. In the two months that followed, Murkowski's office put out an average 36 press releases per month on topics from bill signings to the governor's thoughts on court decisions.

In that time, the governor has crisscrossed the state from Barrow to Ketchikan. On those trips, Murkowski mixes campaigning with official business. His campaign reporting spending nearly $187,000 over the first two months of his campaign, but not a dime on travel.

According to Department of Public Safety records, the governor racked up 11,277 miles in travel across Alaska in the state jet in the first 51 days of his campaign, beginning with a trip to Fairbanks, where he announced his candidacy. By comparison, the previous 51 days, from April 4 through May 24, Murkowski used the jet to travel just 5,404 miles in the state.

That does not count trips to Bellingham, Wash., Salt Lake City and from Port Hardy, British Columbia, to Juneau.

Murkowski does not consider these in-state trips campaign stops - they are primarily for state business, and the campaigning is secondary. To support his argument, he produced a letter from Attorney General David Marquez that said careful judgment should be made in determining the primary purpose of the trip.

"Any activities that might be political in nature (are) incidental to the determined purpose of the trip," Murkowski said in a news conference late last month. "I think if you look at other governors who have the use of state aircraft, they have used it in a similar manner, documenting activities and ensuring that (they) keep it within the ethical intent of the statute."

In the end, voters will decide whether the gas deal is enough to give Murkowski a second term. Detractors aside, few doubt his sincerity when the governor says he believes this is the best deal for Alaskans to get a gas pipeline right now.

If he is able to keep the conversation on the gas pipeline, the election could become as much a referendum on his proposed contract with BP PLC, ConocoPhillips and Exxon Mobil Corp. as it is on his own first term.

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