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ANCHORAGE - Independent gubernatorial candidate Andrew Halcro said he saw Republican Sarah Palin at a candidate forum Wednesday and fully expected to see her at a debate later that afternoon.
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But she was a no-show at the hour-long event sponsored by the Alaska Chamber of Commerce for the three candidates, including Democrat Tony Knowles, a former two-term governor.
Palin, the front-runner among the three, opted instead to attend a ceremony observing the upcoming deployment of 3,500 members of a Fort Richardson airborne infantry brigade. Standing in for the former Wasilla mayor was Sean Parnell, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor.
"I was invited to the military deployment and it was an honor for me to get to attend," Palin said later by phone. "I sure wish I could be everywhere at once."
Halcro said Palin's absence wasn't surprising, given the audience.
"You've got a business crowd that traditionally demands serious answers to serious challenges," he said. "I've been on the campaign trail and she talks in glittering generalities, and this crowd doesn't buy into glittering generalities."
As the leading candidate, Palin can afford to sit out some debates, Halcro said.
"When you're ahead in the polls, you can pick and choose the safe events," he said.
Knowles wouldn't comment directly on Palin's absence, only giving a nod to comedian Woody Allen's oft-quoted line: "Eighty-percent of life is just showing up."
Halcro, a former Republican state representative, said he and Knowles balked at including Parnell in the debate, which covered their takes on issues ranging from the proposed natural gas pipeline to the high cost of health care. So it was agreed upon that Parnell would just give a short address to the Anchorage crowd.
Parnell, a former state representative, explained Palin's absence to the chamber audience.
"It was a late afternoon change," he said. "There's a campaign worker whose loved one is going to Iraq for a year, so we had to make some choices and the choice was that I would come here. Sarah's at the troop deployment."
When contacted later, Palin seemed surprised at that statement, and said she attended the deployment to "support our troops in general."
She also said she announced at the earlier forum that she had conflicting schedules to meet but couldn't recall if she specified which event she planned to attend.
"But I certainly am not hiding from anything or shirking from my campaign duties," Palin said, adding she was disappointed Parnell was not allow to participate in the debate.
Halcro agreed that Palin mentioned the two events, but said it sounded like she meant to be at the debate.
"I never heard her say she was going to the military deployment," he said.
A state official who calls himself a Palin supporter said he attended the event and took her words to mean the opposite. Maj. Gen. Craig Campbell, commissioner of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, said he also couldn't recall Palin specifying what event she would actually attend.
"I interpreted she would be at the deployment," he said.