ANCHORAGE - A third of the U.S. Senate is up for election, but few races are being watched more closely than the battle in Alaska between a freshman Republican beset by charges of nepotism and a popular Democratic challenger, a former two-term governor.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski inherited the seat from her father when he was elected Alaska governor in 2002 after serving in the Senate for more than two decades. Now she is the only sitting Republican in the Senate at risk of losing - a vulnerability that could topple the GOP's slight majority in the chamber.
With 34 Senate seats up for election and eight incumbents opting not to run, Republicans are fighting to keep their majority. And nowhere is that hold more tenuous than in Alaska, where Republicans outnumber Democrats almost three to two but represent only a fourth of the state's 469,042 voters, who tend to register as independents or nonpartisans.
Many voters believe Murkowski didn't earn her seat, a point of view expressed in offices and coffee shops and on bumper stickers that say: "Yo, Lisa! Who's yer daddy?!"
In the final days before the Nov. 2 election, Murkowski, 47, is in a statistical dead heat with Democrat Tony Knowles, 61, according to polls by both campaigns, although Knowles' staffers give the former governor a slight edge. Murkowski and Knowles each have raised about $4.5 million overall.
A Knowles win would be the first time a Democrat has held an Alaska Senate seat in 24 years.
"I hope Lisa Murkowski loses, honestly, because of the way she got her job," said Mike Rowlett, an Anchorage retail worker. "People should have decided, not her daddy. I feel like she's riding on her dad's coattails and that's a big thing for me. Public officials should be elected, not appointed."
Gov. Frank Murkowski appointed his daughter to his vacant Senate seat in 2002 after the Legislature changed the law letting the new governor fill Senate vacancies instead of the incumbent, Knowles at the time. In the Republican primary, Lisa Murkowski's challengers hammered on the nepotism issue and Mike Miller, a former state Senate president, attacked her as a liberal while billing himself as a "trusted conservative."
Miller collected 37 percent of the vote to Murkowski's 58 percent in the Aug. 24 primary. Knowles, who faced token opposition, received 88 percent of the vote.
That an incumbent lost so many votes in the primary is a red flag, political analysts say.
Murkowski's controversial appointment to the seat is a substantial drag on her campaign, said Carl Shepro, an associate political science professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Another strike against the senator is the perception among the right wing of her own party that she isn't as conservative as her congressional voting record might indicate, Shepro said.
"In the state Legislature she was considered to be fairly moderate, well, even liberal," he said. "As soon as she went to Congress, she swung decidedly to the right and, of course, faced the possibility of alienating her moderate base, while not completely satisfying the right."
Then there's the built-in advantage of Murkowski's opponent, said Stephen Medvic, an assistant government professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.
"You've got a former governor running, a candidate who's well known right off the bat," Medvic said. "And here's this sitting incumbent who hasn't been sitting there long enough to build a name as in a normal incumbency. The nepotism thing doesn't help, either."
More than 50,000 Alaska voters signed a petition for an initiative that would abolish U.S. Senate vacancy appointments entirely. The measure, which also appears on the Nov. 2 ballot, would require vacancies to be filled by special election.
In some quarters, the Senate race could end up a referendum on Murkowski's father, whose performance as governor has alienated a portion of the electorate.
But Murkowski supporters believe she can win the election on her own, particularly since Congress recently passed financial incentives for building a long-awaited natural gas pipeline in Alaska. They dismiss criticism from Knowles that the incentives aren't enough because they don't include a special tax credit to protect pipeline companies against low natural gas prices.
"I don't think anyone is surprised that this race is as close as it has been," said Elliott Bundy, a Murkowski campaign spokesman. "We feel very good. We feel the momentum is on our side."
Still, Republicans have trotted out party heavy hitters - including Vice President Dick Cheney - to campaign for Murkowski, who also touts her GOP roots as the best chance for opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. In recent weeks, a barrage of ads have hailed her as a crucial member of Alaska's congressional delegation, often showing Murkowski flanked by photos of her veteran Republican colleagues, Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young.
"If Democrats win control of the U.S. Senate, our great team will get sidelined," reads one ad. "Don't let them do it!"
For his part, Knowles promises to bridge party lines and rally enough support to open up ANWR, a goal strongly opposed by Democratic presidential challenger John Kerry. Knowles bills himself as an independent voice representing all Alaskans on issues they care about.
Knowles hasn't made nepotism an issue. Instead he slams his opponent as a toady for special interests who tends to vote with the Republican majority, although a roll-call search showed Murkowski stood independently in at least four major votes in the past year.
"I'm not addressing how she got her job, but what she's done with it," Knowles said.
Grant Hunter, an Anchorage attorney, said he's happy with Murkowski's performance and wants to keep Republicans in office. He believes most Alaska voters will agree with him - if enough Republicans who supported Miller in the primary go to the polls.
"Nepotism is water under the bridge," Hunter said. "Seniority is the issue. We're a small state and we need to maximize our seniority. I think the people of Alaska will have the common sense not to throw away two years of seniority."