The pool of Democrats running for governor has grown to include a third candidate, who has vied for the seat before.
Former state legislator Nels Anderson Jr. of Dillingham announced on Tuesday that he will make another bid for governor in the 2002 election.
Anderson, 61, competed for the seat in 1998 but lost in the primary to incumbent Gov. Tony Knowles, who took nearly 39,000 votes compared with about 3,300 for Anderson.
In a written statement, Anderson said he is the only candidate with the broad political background needed to mend hard feelings between rural and urban residents.
"I have lived most of my life in rural Alaska," said Anderson, noting he also has lived in Fairbanks and Anchorage.
Anderson was majority leader during three terms in the state House from 1975-81. He also served in the state Senate from 1982-83. He will compete in the primary against Anchorage resident Bruce Lemke and Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer, who announced her candidacy Saturday.
Ulmer, although considered an underdog against Republican U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski, who quietly announced his candidacy Monday, is seen as the presumptive Democratic nominee.
"I think that Fran Ulmer is a really great, fantastic candidate and a great campaigner," said Scott Sterling of Wasilla, state Democratic chairman.
"I believe she has more fire in the belly than Frank does," said Juneau Democratic activist Rich Listowski, noting that Murkowski has considered a gubernatorial campaign for years.
The suddenness of Murkowski's announcement, made through a faxed news release and without the usual political fanfare, surprised some political watchers. But Murkowski said today it was not necessary to hold a press conference to announce his candidacy.
"I think the most significant thing was the question of whether we were going to run or not, and that was easily answered by a press statement," said Murkowski.
Murkowski lost his chairmanship of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee this year when Democrats took control of the Senate, and the 21-year political veteran said he considered the setback when deciding to run for governor.
"It wasn't the (only) consideration but it was a reality that lends you to look at other alternatives," said Murkowski, who estimated he would have to wait eight years for a finance committee chairmanship.
Although a formidable fund-raiser, Murkowski will have to start from scratch because no money from his Senate campaign
war chest can be used for his gubernatorial campaign.
Murkowski acknowledged that it may be difficult for him to campaign while the Senate is in session, but he anticipates visiting Alaska and buying plenty of television ads.
"He'll probably play the Washington, D.C., card," said Clive Thomas, political science professor at the University of Alaska Southeast. That is, Murkowski might say he's too busy with national business to engage in direct debate with Ulmer, Thomas said. "It might be hard to pin him down" on state issues.
Murkowski said his priorities include working out a long-term fiscal plan for the state, but he didn't provide specifics.
"After all, we've only been in this mode for less that 24 hours," he said.
Ulmer also declined to endorse specific solutions to the state's fiscal gap.
Murkowski said he wants to work to resolve the state's subsistence dilemma, but said he was not prepared to spell out how he would do that.
Republican candidate Wayne Anthony Ross, an Anchorage attorney and 1998 gubernatorial candidate who isn't dropping out of the 2002 party primary, said: "Frank Murkowski, God bless him, hasn't been much help to us in Washington, D.C., on those (subsistence) issues."
Ross opposes federal intervention in creating a rural subsistence priority.
Alaska's U.S. Rep. Don Young and Sen. Ted Stevens, both Republicans, said they strongly support Murkowski's decision and said his move won't hamper efforts to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development. Under his party's seniority rules, Murkowski will have to give up his post as top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee next year.
Young also said he is not interested in assuming Murkowski's seat if he leaves the Senate.
"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."
An appointment by the governor would be required to fill the vacancy. Whether that governor would be Murkowski or the incumbent, Democrat Tony Knowles, is a topic of hot debate. Murkowski said he can name his own successor upon being sworn in for governor. In any case, by state law only a Republican could be named to fill the two years left on Murkowski's term.
Two Republicans, state Sen. Robin Taylor of Wrangell and former Anchorage Mayor Rick Mystrom, said Tuesday they might be interested in the Senate appointment. But Taylor said he was looking seriously at vying with former House Speaker Gail Phillips of Homer for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor.
Phillips said she would provide good geographical balance, as she has lived in both Southcentral and the Bush, and Murkowski has lived in Fairbanks and Southeast. Taylor said Murkowski privately encouraged him to run, although he said he expects Murkowski to remain publicly neutral in the contest for the No. 2 spot.
Kathy Dye can be reached at email@example.com. Bill McAllister can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Associated Press contributed to this report.