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U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski and Anchorage attorney Wayne Anthony Ross acted more like old bantering buddies Thursday than serious rivals in the Republican race for governor.
The two traded friendly barbs throughout a candidates forum and luncheon sponsored by the Anchorage Republican Women's Club. Murkowski, considered the front-runner in his party, faces Ross in the Aug. 27 primary.
The two other Republican gubernatorial candidates, Eric Weiler of Anchorage and Brad Snowden of Seward, were not invited to speak at the forum.
Ross chided Murkowski for deserting a winning congressional team of veterans. He said Murkowski's duty lies with the Senate, where his 22 years of seniority is crucial in dealing with important national issues affecting Alaska, such as opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling and building a natural gas line from the North Slope.
"Frank, you don't need to take on more problems in Juneau," Ross said. "You have problems enough to solve as our senator in Washington. You need to stay in Washington.
But Murkowski said staying in the Senate would be the easier choice. He wants to make a difference closer to home, he said.
"We have a conviction and a belief that what happened in this state in the last eight years is a tremendous disappointment," Murkowski said. "No, Wayne, we're coming back because we honestly believe we can serve the people of Alaska in Juneau as governor better than we can to stay in the United States Senate."
Ross listed his long ties to Alaska and said he closely understands major issues involving public safety, the criminal justice system, natural resources, subsistence and education. He said his goal is to cut state spending by half a billion dollars.
Murkowski zeroed in on his political experience.
"We're talking about qualifications," he said. "And the qualifications associated with running this state, working with our federal government and working with our delegation, are qualifications I have and I believe in all honesty they're second to none."
Concluding the event, Murkowski and Ross agreed to support each other should one of them win. The club president, former state Rep. Alyce Hanley, then asked the two to sign a unity pledge to keep their campaigns clean and to support the winner in the general election. They signed after Ross inserted "Republican" before the word winner.
Meanwhile, four other gubernatorial candidates tackled policy issues at a candidates forum in Fairbanks on Thursday night.
Candidates answered questions on a wide range of issues, with the state's fiscal woes emerging as a common theme.
Participating in the League of Women Voters forum were Alaskan Independence Party candidates Nels Anderson Jr. and John Wayne Glotfelty and Democrats Michael Beasley and Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer.
All of the candidates were asked what they would do to solve the state's fiscal gap. Beasley said he favored leaving the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend untouched.
"I also say we do not need a sales tax," Beasley said, "And we certainly do not need an income tax."
Ulmer acknowledged the financial difficulties the state is facing and praised the House for its attempt last session to bridge the fiscal gap, but she didn't offer a specific solution to the problem. She noted the importance of controlling state spending and increasing revenue, saying that she planned to offer more specifics in an upcoming policy speech.
Anderson said he favored a proposal to consolidate the Alaska Permanent Fund, the earnings reserve account and the Constitutional Budget Reserve into a single account that could be invested and the earnings used to fund state government. He also proposed cutting unnecessary government functions and taxing North Slope natural gas.
"As governor I am either going to get that gas out of there or tax it in the ground," Anderson said.
Glotfelty, also an AIP candidate, was skeptical that the fiscal gap is even real. For years people said the money would be gone by this year, he said, and it is still here now.
I will not increase your taxes on a projected shortfall that has already been proven to be false," he said. He also advocated cutting unnecessary, high-paid government officials.
The candidates also found some common ground on several subjects. All but Beasley spoke in favor of continued funding for Smart Start, an initiative started during the current administration that advocates funding for children's social, medical and education programs.
Anderson, Ulmer and Glotfelty all advocated streamlining permitting in order to stimulate economic development in the state.