WASHINGTON - U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens' conviction Monday on corruption charges gives Democrats a late boost in an improbable drive to win the 60-vote Senate supermajority they want as they look ahead to the new Congress.
Until the jury rendered its verdict, Stevens had been in a close race with his opponent, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, in a state that hasn't sent a Democrat to the Senate in a generation.
Now Begich becomes the favorite as Republicans walk away from the 84-year-old Senate veteran and Democrats and their political allies waste no time trumpeting his conviction.
"Alaskans deserve better than a convicted criminal for a Senator," said Democracy for America in a fundraising appeal e-mailed less than an hour after Stevens was found guilty. It praised Begich as "a leader that will fight for the people instead of using his power for personal gain."
With 51 seats currently under their control, including two occupied by independents, Democrats are overwhelmingly favored to pick up GOP-held seats in Virginia, New Mexico and Colorado where Republicans are retiring.
No Democratic-held seats appear in jeopardy.
But numerous Republican incumbents are in difficult races, a group that includes Sens. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina; John Sununu of New Hampshire; Norm Coleman of Minnesota; Gordon Smith of Oregon; Saxby Chambliss of Georgia; Roger Wicker of Mississippi; and the party's leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Stevens now takes his place near or at the head of the line. Over the next eight days, he will be seeking a new term as a convicted felon, in a state buffeted for more than a year by official corruption and in a national political environment as difficult for Republicans as any has been since Watergate a generation ago.
Democrats are confident Barack Obama will win the White House next week, and they appear poised to add to their House majority. Theoretically, that would leave the Senate as the Republicans' last redoubt of power.
While it takes 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, the Senate is a notoriously unpredictable institution filled with independent politicians.
So while Democrats may not win 60 seats, if they get 56 or 57, it would make it easier to pick up a Republican or two on some key issues, as Sen. John Ensign, chairman of the GOP senatorial committee said last week.
At this late date, if anyone could have thrown a political lifeline to Stevens, it might have been Gov. Sarah Palin. She's had a remarkably bumpy ride as John McCain's vice presidential running mate, but her approval ratings back home, while diminished, remain high.
She soon made it clear she wasn't spending any political capital on Stevens.
After refusing to endorse his bid for a new term while his trial was under way, she seemed to suggest after his conviction that he quit the race.
"As Governor of the State of Alaska, I will carefully monitor this situation and take any appropriate action as needed," she said in a written statement.
"In the meantime, I ask the people of Alaska to join me in respecting the workings of our judicial system. I'm confident Senator Stevens will do what's right for the people of Alaska."
McConnell, who is struggling to salvage his own seat, said Stevens "will be held accountable so the public trust can be restored."
But Ensign, chairman of the GOP senatorial committee, made it clear he was no more inclined to help Stevens than he had been to assist Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho last year after he was caught in a men's room sex sting.
"I am disappointed to see his career end in disgrace," he said of Stevens. "This is a reminder that no one is above the law."
Ensign had said previously that Stevens' political fate depended entirely on the verdict in his trial, letting it be known that if convicted, Stevens could not expect help from the party committee.
Until recently, conviction in a corruption case seemed unimaginable in a career that has made Stevens the longest-serving Republican senator in history.
His ability to direct federal funding to his home state has drawn much of the attention in recent years, and he seemed to relish the role of a crusty, intemperate Senate elder as he hurried down the Capitol's marble corridors.
And while some power perches came and went over the years as his party gained and lost its majority, he wielded enormous control for 20 years over the Pentagon's budget as the senior GOP member of the subcommittee with jurisdiction over military spending.
Witnesses at his trial described him as a man of character.
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell said Stevens' honesty and integrity were "in a word, sterling." Seated in the courtroom, he said of the accused, "There was never any suggestion that he would do anything that was improper."
On that, the jury dissented.
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