Sen. Frank Murkowski announced this morning that he will run for governor next year.
Murkowski, a Republican who is finishing up his 21st year in the Senate, has been described by political commentators and pollsters as the potential "800-pound gorilla" in the open contest to succeed Gov. Tony Knowles, who must leave office after two terms.
In a news release issued from Anchorage just before noon, the senator said: "Many Alaskans have expressed to me their concerns about the lack of progress on important issues like the state's increasing budget deficits, declining education performance and funding, lack of economic growth and diversification, and the growing divide between rural and urban Alaska. Many people fear that this lack of progress could lead to several crises in just a few years."
Alaskans are seeking "seasoned leadership and experience to guide the state through the challenges and opportunities ahead," Murkowski said.
His decision likely sets up a contest with Democratic Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer, who announced her candidacy on Saturday in Fairbanks. No prominent Democrats are expected to challenge Ulmer.
Ulmer on Saturday doubted Murkowski would leave the U.S. Senate given the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. She said today she was surprised to hear of his announcement to run for governor and suggested he could serve Alaska better by staying in Washington, D.C.
"That's the office he ran for and said he wanted. That's the office where he can do the most good for Alaska given he's on the energy committee where ANWR and the gas pipeline and natural resources issues come up," Ulmer said.
"If he leaves, 20 years of seniority will walk out the door," she added.
Sen. Robin Taylor, a Wrangell Republican who ran for governor in 1998, said he will not run again, now that Murkowski is in the race. Former House Speaker Gail Phillips, a Homer Republican, has said that she would run for lieutenant governor rather than governor if Murkowski decided to run.
"I don't see it as a competitive race," Taylor said of the apparent Ulmer-Murkowski match-up. "I think that's a good debate and a good campaign. You're going to have the liberal left well-represented and spoken for by Fran Ulmer. You're going to have the right and the conservative elements of Alaska well spoken for by Frank Murkowski."
Randy Ruedrich of Anchorage, state Republican chairman, said Murkowski is "overwhelmingly qualified" and a likely victor. State Democratic Party Chairman Scott Sterling couldn't be reached for comment immediately.
Murkowski has been mulling the race publicly for months but had put off a decision until the Senate took action on a proposal to drill for oil on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an issue he had championed as vital to national energy independence. But the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks stalled action.
Murkowski spent the weekend in Talkeetna at the Alaska Youth Summit, and made the decision to go ahead with the campaign.
"After listening for two days to the young women and men attending the Alaska Youth Summit, I am convinced more than ever the greatest contribution I can make at this time is to the youth of Alaska," Murkowski said in his news release, which hit fax machines as the senator was boarding a plane en route back to Washington. "I must say with great humility that I appreciate the confidence that Alaskans have placed in me. I am ready and eager to take on the challenges ahead."
Although Murkowski's announcement wasn't a surprise, it is somewhat unusual, politically. Only 12 senators in U.S. history were later elected governor, although there were three cases in the past decade, according to the records of the National Governors Association. The announcement itself was unusual in that Murkowski did not speak at a public event or news conference, releasing only a written statement.
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