The 2002 race for governor, which quickly gelled over the weekend, will give Alaskans a clear choice and maybe a close contest, according to a variety of observers.
U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski decided Sunday night that he would enter the fray, after hearing the concerns of high school juniors and seniors at the Alaska Youth Summit in Talkeetna, according to the senator's daughter, state Rep. Lisa Murkowski of Anchorage.
"I think that he was just inspired by the energy and the enthusiasm and the very adult-like concerns that these young people had," she said this morning. "He has been wrestling with this decision for a long time."
The Republican senator made his announcement through a faxed news release Monday, just two days after Democratic Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer declared her candidacy in Fairbanks. Murkowski was scheduled to hold a news conference in Washington today.
A former mayor and state representative in Juneau, Ulmer has been visible statewide for seven years as lieutenant governor, a position that includes overseeing elections. Running with gubernatorial candidate Tony Knowles in 1994, she became the first woman to win statewide office in Alaska.
Veteran Anchorage pollsters Dave Dittman and Marc Hellenthal give Ulmer and Murkowski a clear edge in winning the nominations of their parties.
(Hellenthal described former Anchorage Mayor Rick Mystrom as a potential "wild card" in the Republican primary election, with the potential to weaken Murkowski for the general election. But Mystrom, who was considering the race, said today he decided in August that his heart wasn't in it, although he raised the possibility of accepting an appointment to Murkowski's Senate seat should it become vacant.)
In an Ulmer-Murkowski match-up, Murkowski is considered the clear front-runner. The only question now is whether Ulmer can make a race of it, given that the electorate generally favors Republicans.
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."
"She has a chance," said Gerald McBeath, political science professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
"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."
Murkowski is likely to bring Republicans together, something that hasn't happened in the past several gubernatorial elections, McBeath said. Even though the state's congressional delegation has been all Republicans for more than two decades, the last registered Republican to win the governor's seat was Jay Hammond, who left office in 1982.
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, McBeath said.
Former House Speaker Gail Phillips, a Homer Republican who was considering the gubernatorial race but now will file for lieutenant governor, said that Ulmer and Murkowski are "totally different." Ulmer favors an activist government and consensus-building, while Murkowski believes in individual initiative and would trust his own experience in making decisions, Phillips said.
There's disagreement about whether Ulmer might be perceived as just a Southeast candidate.
"It was significant she made her announcement up in Fairbanks and not in Juneau," McBeath said.
But Dittman said his polling on Ulmer has shown she has a statewide base.
Hellenthal said that in his polling Murkowski and Ulmer both have high "positives," although Murkowski not surprisingly, after 21 years in the Senate has somewhat higher negative ratings from voters. Hellenthal expects a competitive race that will be decided by voters' "subjective interpretations of the personalities" of the candidates.
If he wins, Murkowski would resign from the Senate and his seat would be filled by appointment of Knowles, who often is seen 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, but two Republican senators say they expect an override vote in January.
Republican Rep. Don Young, Alaska's only member in the U.S. House of Representatives, said he was not interested in assuming the Senate seat if Murkowski leaves.
"I am pleased to be chair of the transportation committee, which is probably one of the most influential in the House," Young said. "I think the House is where I belong."
U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens today applauded Murkowski's decision to join the race.
An aide to Stevens quoted the senator as saying: "I think this is an opportune time for him to make this decision. He will not be running against an incumbent governor."
Bill McAllister can be reached at email@example.com.