The three Republicans running for Alaska governor argued Thursday in a televised debate whether the state failed as a watchdog over BP's North Slope operations.
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Gov. Frank Murkowski laid the blame squarely on BP for not running proper maintenance on the BP pipe network that was recently shut down, costing the state millions in revenue per day.
"The state did not drop the ball," Murkowski said at the KTOO-TV studio in Juneau.
But his challengers, former Wasilla Mayor Sarah Palin, and former two-term state legislator John Binkley, said the state could have exercised tighter regulatory control.
"This administration and the agencies have dropped the ball. ... They should be keeping an eye on those operators," Binkley responded.
With only a minute to answer each question from journalists, the candidates didn't have much time to get into the arguments that have erupted at their other debates around Alaska.
At the end of the evening, members of the audience, such as George Imbsen, of Douglas, had a hard time parsing whether the debate had a clear winner or not.
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"There wasn't a clear loser," Imbsen said.
On the proposed North Slope gas pipeline, Murkowski reiterated his support for the project his administration negotiated with BP, Exxon Mobil Corp. and ConocoPhillips.
He noted that the project will allow Alaska to take 20 percent of the gas.
"It will be our gas. We can direct it anywhere we want," he said.
Binkley and Palin both criticized the deal, but only in general terms.
"We conceded too much," Palin said, adding, "We have to guarantee the jobs are for Alaskans."
In terms of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, the candidates were asked if BP's pipeline problems - caused by corrosion - were damaging Alaska's efforts.
Palin argued that ANWR has to be opened "for national security."
Murkowski complained that environmentalists have "failed to recognize the contributions we (Alaska) can make" to addressing the country's energy needs.
The state faces a tougher battle in Congress, Murkowski said. "Unfortunately, we need 60 votes," he said.
Binkley said that BP's current disaster "certainly hasn't helped (Alaska's) case."
All of the candidates described themselves as pro-life and against the death penalty, though Palin said she would consider abortion if it threatened a mother's life and the death penalty in cases of the murder of a child.
The debate touched on accusations made Thursday by Murkowski staffers that Palin used her Wasilla mayor's office for campaign purposes.
Murkowski said he didn't see much difference between actions by Palin and Republican Party Chairman Randy Ruedrich, who admitted to leaking confidential information to an energy company lobbyist and conducted partisan political activity from his state office with the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. He was fined $12,000 in 2004, the largest civil fine ever administered in the state for an ethics case.
Palin said Murkowski's attacks reminded her of fouls at the end of a ball game just to get the clock to stop. She said she was going to follow the "high road."
She said she was upset that the documents apparently provided to the Murkowski administration included a lot of confidential information, including her Social Security number.
At the close of the debate, the candidates gave brief statements about what they hoped voters had learned about them.
Murkowski said "Alaskans are better off than they were four years ago" and that the state needs to have a "tough governor to make the decisions."
Murkowski added that he is the only Republican in the primary that can beat the Democratic challenger, former Gov. Tony Knowles.
Palin said she would bring a "private sector agenda" to the governor's office. She noted that under her leadership, Wasilla eliminated private property taxes and other onerous costs to taxpayers. She said she believed in "the principles of competition and free enterprise."
Binkley said he has the maturity to lead. He said his breadth of experience ranges from starting a small business in rural Alaska to running the Alaska Railroad Corp. With his children grown, "it's the right season" for him to take the job.
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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