Sarah Palin, former Wasilla mayor and mother of four, was the clear choice of Alaska Republican voters, as of press time late Tuesday night, to be their nominee for governor in the November election.
By late Tuesday night, Palin had won 51 percent of votes cast in the Republican primary, Fairbanks businessman John Binkley received 30 percent of the votes and Gov. Frank Murkowski about 19 percent, with 60 percent of the precincts reporting.
"I'm not ready to declare victory yet. But the numbers do look encouraging and at the same time very humbling," said Palin, on the phone from Election Central at the Egan Convention Center in Anchorage, where all GOP candidates gathered Tuesday night.
Democratic candidate and former Gov. Tony Knowles will likely be her challenger in the fall. He was leading his primary race with 60 percent votes cast.
"It's going to be tough because Gov. Knowles is a great candidate," said Palin, adding that she expects he will raise a lot of money and call on many friends for support.
In the hotly contested Republican race, candidates claimed to be the best person to negotiate a deal to build a $25 billion natural gas pipeline.
Murkowski wanted another chance to finish negotiations he started this term with ConocoPhillips, BP and Exxon Mobil. The two parties reached a verbal agreement on fiscal terms, but have not signed a contract.
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Before Tuesday's election, Murkowski had the second-lowest approval ratings of all governors in the nation. Despite last-minute campaign ads candidly addressing his slip in popularity, the former U.S. senator was unable win back voters who supported him in 2002.
Several efforts were made to reach the governor, but Murkowski was not available for comment before press time.
The pipeline deal can still be salvaged, Binkley and Palin say, though they mentioned they would consider an all-Alaska route that would send gas to Valdez for shipment to a pipeline in British Columbia.
Former state legislator Binkley was a critic of Murkowski's negotiating tactics, saying he would use more bargaining chips to get a pipeline from producers or look at alternative proposals.
Republicans' vote on Tuesday showed that Alaskans are ready for a change, Binkley said.
"Of course, we are disappointed with the results," said Binkley, of his own race.
Binkley saw support from several in the Juneau business community, and was reportedly popular with voters in Fairbanks and rural Alaska. The riverboat captain raised $1 million - the most of any candidate - and spent more than that amount.
"We're just pleased and really thankful for all the support we had in Juneau," he said.
Two other GOP candidates, Jerry Hiekes and Merica Hlatcu, each took in less than one percent of votes cast.
Polls showed Palin with a steady lead throughout the campaign season. House Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, said her conservative views, thoughts on the gas pipeline and commitment to ethics attracted voters.
"I think she appeals to the common populous person. She doesn't carry any political airs," Coghill said.
Some would call her a maverick within her own party. In 2004 and 2005, Palin led the charge in reporting ethical violations committed by Alaska Republican Party Chairman Randy Ruedrich and former state attorney general Gregg Renkes.
Palin ran for lieutenant governor in 2002 but narrowly lost in the GOP primary election to Loren Leman.
Her running mate will most likely be former state legislator Sean Parnell.
Palin, 42, is married to Todd Palin, a production operator on the North Slope for BP. Their children are son Track, 17, and daughters Bristol, 15, Willow 12, and Piper, 5.
Andrew Petty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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