The campaign to be Alaska's next governor is picking up steam, with a pair of Democrats throwing fundraisers and the entry of a Republican known for pointing out what she perceives as ethical lapses by members of her own party.
But the complete picture of the 2006 race will remain fuzzy until incumbent Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski and former Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles make up their minds about whether to run.
Knowles, a two-term governor who failed in his bid for a U.S. Senate seat in 2004, said he plans to be involved in some way, but he hasn't decided whether to run. After sitting out a term, he is eligible again to run for governor in 2006.
"It's a big responsibility and it's a major decision to make, and you have to put some time and effort into it, and I really haven't done it," Knowles said. "I think it's really important that Alaska changes its direction. I'm going to participate in one way or another."
If Knowles jumps into the fray, it would likely hurt the nascent campaigns of Anchorage Democratic Reps. Ethan Berkowitz and Eric Croft. Knowles' statewide name recognition would make him tough to beat in the Democratic primary, said Carl Shepro, a political science professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
"If (Knowles) did come into the race, it would make it extremely difficult for either Croft or Berkowitz," Shepro said. "In my personal opinion, neither one of them is very well known outside of Anchorage and maybe Juneau."
Berkowitz and Croft both kicked off their campaigns with fundraisers last week in Anchorage and Fairbanks, respectively. Croft is tying his early campaigning to his ballot proposal to tax the natural gas reserves that North Slope producers don't ship to market. Berkowitz says he wants to start the debate early and get a jump on finding out what voters are saying.
Both plan to continue fundraising and stumping in rural Alaska until they report to Juneau for the legislative session in January.
Murkowski has not announced his re-election plans. However, the governor's office has spent $3,000 on a contract with a public relations firm to shape Murkowski's message.
An Associated Press public documents inspection shows the firm, Rockey Hill & Knowlton, drafted three overall messages with talking points for each that outline Murkowski's accomplishments over his first term. The firm also critiqued a sampling of the governor's press releases.
Spokeswoman Becky Hultberg said the public relations contract was not awarded with the 2006 election in mind.
"There's a lot of speculation by a lot of people," Hultberg said of Murkowski's re-election plans. "The reality is, he has not made his intentions known one way or another."
While some would-be Republican candidates are waiting for Murkowski's decision, former Wasilla mayor Sarah Palin announced last week that she'll run as a Republican. Palin lost the 2002 Republican primary for lieutenant governor to Loren Leman and later publicly criticized Republican party chairman Randy Ruedrich and former Attorney General Gregg Renkes for alleged ethics law violations.
"I did want to jump in there first instead of waiting for others to jockey into position based on who's going to run for what," Palin said. "I think this is a great opportunity not only for myself but for others who recognize it's a wide-open race."
Murkowski's silence has kept others, such as state Sen. Ralph Seekins, R-Fairbanks, waiting in the wings. Seekins, who describes himself as a longtime friend of Murkowski, says he will run only if the governor doesn't.
"From my standpoint, I still agree that he has a job to do and he needs to do that with all his available effort," Seekins said. "I don't think there's any urgency yet, but every day gets closer to where you have to do something."
Shepro said strategically, Murkowski is making the right decision in keeping quiet for now.
"I don't think it would be to his advantage to declare right now, primarily because of where he's at in terms of approval ratings (with) the general public," Shepro said. "It would make sense for him to show some kind of gain, something to take credit for."
Murkowski has been trying to land a contract with three oil producers for fiscal terms for building a North Slope natural gas pipeline. State negotiators handed over a contract proposal to the producers more than a week ago, but have received no response yet.
Whether Murkowski can show a stranded gas contract to the voters - and what that contract looks like - will play a big role in shaping the Republican field, Shepro said.
"I don't think anything is going to break loose until somehow the gas line deal is approved, and there's reaction to that. Or if he announces he's not going to run," Shepro said.