JUNEAU - Nearly two weeks after declaring the gloves off in her rematch with Republican rival Joe Miller, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski took aim at the conservative's contention that the era of earmarks is dead, saying aid to further build infrastructure in this still-young state is vital, not pork.
During a forum in Anchorage on Thursday, she suggested - to loud applause - that if such cuts are to be made, perhaps the best place to start looking to make them is in the Lower 48.
The forum represented the first meeting of the two since Miller defeated Murkowski in the August GOP primary - Murkowski is currently running as a write-in candidate - and the first meeting of all three major Senate candidates. Democrat Scott McAdams is competing with Murkowski for independent voters and has cast himself as the moderate voice in the race.
The event was focused on Alaska Native issues, with the candidates agreeing on the need to improve the rural economy and provide for more reliable energy - just differing, in some cases, on how to get there.
Murkowski and McAdams, for example, talked about a focus on boosting renewable energy to help build up local communities and create jobs. Miller said options, including nuclear, shouldn't be precluded or overlooked.
A big issue was money. Miller, who believes the powers of the federal government should be limited to those spelled out in the U.S. Constitution, has argued that federal deficits are crippling, Washington is out of control and Alaska must be weaned off its heavy reliance on federal help and given greater control of its own resources.
Part of a wave of tea party-backed candidates vying for Congress, Miller said a new day is coming and Alaska needs to be prepared. While the past few decades have been a blessing, he said - a period in which members of Alaska's delegation brought home billions in federal aid and projects - it's a "dream" to think that will continue. He believes the fights should be waged during the appropriations process.
But McAdams, like Murkowski, argued the need for Alaska to continue fighting for what he calls its fair share. Murkowski stressed her seniority as critical to helping to ensure Alaska's voice is heard.
Before Murkowski jumped into the race, she was praised by McAdams. On Thursday, he questioned whether Murkowski, who'd built a reputation as a centrist but has shifted further right, had put party over policy the last few years. Murkowski has attributed this to her concerns about the direction the country was heading under President Barack Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress.