Palin's campaign echoes 1996 run

Former Wasilla mayor still touts 'New Energy'

Posted: Wednesday, October 25, 2006

JUNEAU - Sarah Palin's populist campaign was a hit.

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Voters responded to her slogan "Time for a Change." They called for new blood and tossed out the incumbent in favor of the Wasilla housewife.

No, that's not a rehash of the Aug. 22 Republican primary, where Palin steamrolled Gov. Frank Murkowski to win the party's nomination for governor.

Those were the headlines 10 years ago, when Palin beat incumbent John Stein to become mayor of Wasilla.

Palin's campaign then strongly echoes her message now. Today's slogans - "Take a Stand" and "New Energy for Alaska" - are variations of the same theme that got her elected a decade ago.

While her song is not new, it may be timely. Palin is looking to catapult into office this year on an electorate soured by scandal.

"I've been blessed with the right timing here," Palin said. "There's no doubt that Alaskans right now are dealing in an atmosphere of distrust of government and industry."

While Republicans nationwide worry what voters may do at the polls Nov. 7, Palin is an exception. The 42-year-old mother of four made it this far by running against the grain of the Republican party.

Although she is very conservative on social issues such as abortion, she captured more than half the votes in the primary by presenting herself as the "alternative" party choice. She struck a nerve with voters who were dissatisfied with Murkowski by appealing for a new Republican order and slamming her own party's hierarchy.

The voters' mood is not likely to improve for the general election. Alaskans will walk into voting booths in two weeks amid the uncertainty created by an ongoing FBI investigation involving state lawmakers and oil industry executives. Then there is the revelation that several arteries carrying Alaska's lifeblood, oil, are rotten - and questions of whether state government officials turned a blind eye to what led to pipeline corrosion on Prudhoe Bay.

Palin's themes for transparent government and ending ethical lapses by state officials may be just what voters want to hear.

But this is not the primary campaign, and the race is tougher this time. Her two main opponents, Democrat Tony Knowles and independent Andrew Halcro, have hacked at her lead by changing the debate to experience and details on the issues.

Both have called for more substance and more ideas from Palin. Knowles regularly churns out program proposals and issue papers meant to show off his experience and ability to jump in and govern. Halcro slams Palin at public forums for what he calls her "glittering generalities" to the state's issues.

Knowles is critical of her ambitions to go from mayor of Wasilla to running the state. Palin would be in over her head with the important decisions the next governor will have to make, including finalizing a North Slope natural gas pipeline contract, he says.

What Knowles doesn't mention is that the former two-term governor's own political arc followed the same trajectory: Knowles was mayor of Anchorage before winning the 1994 gubernatorial election.

But it is not as big a jump for the mayor of a city the size of Anchorage as it is for one the size of Wasilla, Knowles spokeswoman Patty Ginsburg said.

"It's not the time for a small-town mayor to make the huge leap," she said.

One person who worked under Palin, Anchorage attorney Ken Jacobus, said it's not that big of a leap.

"I think the secret to it is she will have to get good people on her staff," said Jacobus, who was Wasilla's attorney during Palin's second term as mayor.

Palin is keeping quiet on who she would bring with her to Juneau if she wins. All she would say is that they would have to share her goals and that there would be no litmus test of political affiliation.

Back in 1996, the knock against Palin was the same as today: She did not have the experience for the job she was seeking.

When she won despite that criticism, she said, "I took it as a mandate from the voters" to enforce the slogan on which she ran.

Upon taking office, Palin asked Wasilla's top city workers to resign, provide an updated resume and a letter stating their intentions. That resulted in several departures from city government, and a lawsuit from the former police chief.

She said the same philosophy will apply this time around.

"It's the same thing that we're looking at here. Trust in transparency. No more politics as usual. No more putting up with ethical lapses," Palin said. "I'm campaigning on that, it's not going to disappear."

One point has been lost in the crossfire of ethics, pipelines and experience. If Palin wins, she will be Alaska's first female governor.

Palin said gender has not come up in this campaign because it is not an issue for this generation. The past two elections support that idea. Voters elected Lisa Murkowski to the U.S. Senate in 2004, and Fran Ulmer, Knowles' lieutenant governor, won the Democratic nomination for governor four years ago.

But Palin does acknowledge that winning would be something of a milestone.

"I think it would be encouraging for my three daughters and the other women in Alaska who have a goal. They would know that Alaska does not have a glass ceiling in the political arena if I were to break through," she said.

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