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U.S. 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 had expressed doubt that 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.
Some observers believe the race will be close, while others think it's Murkowski's to lose.
"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.
Democrat Joe Sonneman of Juneau, who pulled in about 20 percent of the vote running against Murkowski in the 1998 senatorial election, said that Ulmer faces "an uphill battle." Knowles was very lucky in his two gubernatorial campaigns, Sonneman noted, because Republican infighting and scandals weakened party nominees both times.
"I think the lieutenant governor has a lot of popularity," Sonneman said. "On the other hand, so does Mr. Murkowski, although obviously I don't understand why."
Veteran Anchorage pollster Dave Dittman said Ulmer is "formidable" and can't be counted out.
"I think she benefits from the fact that most people think Gov. Knowles has done a pretty good job," Dittman said. She also could attract votes from conservative women, siphoning off some of the Republican base, he said.
"At this point, I think you're going to see a pretty close election," Dittman said. "I think it's going to be a long, hard campaign and a lot of questions asked."
There's disagreement about whether Ulmer might be pegged as just a Southeast candidate.
"It was significant she made her announcement up in Fairbanks and not in Juneau," said Gerald McBeath, political science professor at University of Alaska Fairbanks.
But Dittman said his polling on Ulmer has shown she has a statewide base.
Juneau's lone Republican in the state Legislature, Rep. Bill Hudson, predicted Murkowski would prevail over Ulmer because of his strong statewide name recognition and fund-raising prowess.
"He has the ability to raise a ton of money, and I think that may be Fran's biggest problem," Hudson said.
Ulmer conceded Murkowski has some advantages.
"A sitting U.S. senator has a lot of name I.D. and a lot of capacity to raise money, so it certainly is a challenge," she said.
"She has a chance," McBeath said. "Certainly, Frank Murkowski will be the favorite candidate in the race."
Murkowski is likely to bring Republicans together, something that hasn't happened in the past several gubernatorial elections, McBeath said. The last registered Republican to win the governor's seat was Jay Hammond, who left office in 1982.
The senator also has faced few questions about his character, the notable instance being when some people blamed him for the collapse of a bank that managed money for the Bering Straits Native Corp., McBeath said. Murkowski had been bank president during a period in the mid-1970s when, according to a judge's ruling later on, the financial institution allowed bad investments by the Native corporation.
"He got out of it mostly unscathed," McBeath said.
Ulmer's best strategy is to "energize women voters" of various political stripes, secure the Democratic edge among Native voters and target new voters who are less familiar with Murkowski's long record, he said.
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 reportedly 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 totally unexpected, given that he said in August that he was "leaning" toward the race, 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.
"Usually political careers go in the other direction," Sonneman said.
The announcement itself was unusual in that Murkowski did not speak at a public event or news conference, releasing only a written statement.
Given that it's "a time of national crisis," McBeath said, "Perhaps he thought it inappropriate to make a major announcement."
If he were to win the 2002 gubernatorial election, Murkowski's seat would be filled by appointment of Knowles, who is often cited as a likely candidate for the Senate. By law, Knowles would have to appoint a Republican to fill out the remaining two years of Murkowski's term.
The Republican majority in the Legislature passed a bill this year to require a five-day waiting period for the appointment, which was seen as an attempt to let Murkowski assume office in Juneau and choose his own successor in the Senate. Knowles vetoed it.
Bill sponsor Dave Donley, a Republican senator from Anchorage, has said he thinks there will be enough votes to override the governor's veto when the Legislature reconvenes in January.
Bill McAllister can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Kathy Dye can be reached at email@example.com.