ANCHORAGE - Alaska Republicans gave U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, currently facing a federal indictment, a primary victory on Tuesday.
Stevens won the race with 63 percent of the vote, beating six other opponents, including his closest competitor Dave Cuddy by more than 35 percentage points.
It sets up a November election race with possibly the toughest opponent Stevens has ever faced in his 40 years in public office, squaring off against popular Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich.
Begich easily won his primary over two minor challengers with 91 percent of the vote, but he still fell several thousand votes behind Stevens.
When asked if he's ready to take on Begich, Stevens replied, "Piece of cake."
A loud crowd of supporters gathered at Stevens' headquarters, and set off a loud cheer when the first results were announced. When they were posted, Stevens walked closer to the big screen television, adjusted his glasses and said, "Looks good to me," before flashing a huge grin.
Meanwhile a throng of Begich supporters watched incoming returns at a local restaurant. Once the numbers starting coming in, the group of sign-carrying supporters walked to the city's convention center with Begich leading the crowd. "It's clear to me people want new ideas," he said.
Before the general election, Stevens faces trial next month on seven felony charges, and political analysts say these primary results could set the tone for the November vote.
Federal prosecutors allege Stevens lied on Senate disclosure reports to conceal more than quarter million dollars in home renovations and gifts from VECO Corp. executives.
Stevens said he was heartened by the support that included visits from former Gov. Bill Sheffield, former Alaska House Speaker Gail Phillips and U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
"The fight's on," Stevens said. "I've got the troops behind me. Alaskans trust me. This is a Republican state. Republicans know the Democrats have been blocking us the whole way."
Begich has so far avoided playing the corruption card, saying he prefers to stick with issues such as energy development, health care and education.
He also touted his work as Anchorage mayor, for both the city's fiscal discipline and economic development successes.
"I talk about what I'm going to offer," Begich said. "Because at the end of the day, that's what people want to do: Vote for something.
"He's the only one can deal with that issue. At the end of the day, what I can deal with is offer the voters a choice. New ideas, fresh ideas, not the same old business as usual."
Thor Evenson of Anchorage said he voted for Begich simply because he's a Democrat.
"Right now I don't trust the Republicans, especially at the local level," Evenson said. "It's not an intuitive thing. There are people who have been convicted in federal court."
But Noel Janda of Anchorage said he trusts Stevens, calling him a man who is "strictly business" and good for Alaska.
"I don't see anybody out there who is better," Janda said. "We need him in Washington. I don't think we can afford to lose him there."
Once the charges against him were levied last month, Stevens' attorneys asked for a speedy trial, and got it. It's scheduled to start Sept. 22, starting with the jury selection.
But Stevens has been focused the last few weeks on the campaign, spending time in Alaska while his lawyers handle the case.
In one of his final fundraisers, Stevens flew to Juneau and received a welcome from 200 supporters who responded to his lunchtime speech with several standing ovations.
Juneau Republican Party Chairman Ben Brown said the indictment hasn't affected voters' attitudes towards Stevens.
"People are withholding judgment, which is the way the judicial system works," Brown said.
The Juneau Empire's Alan Suderman contributed to this report.
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