ANCHORAGE - Familiar issues and occasional tempers emerged Thursday night as Republican incumbent Lisa Murkowski and Democrat Tony Knowles squared off in a U.S. Senate debate aired on public television.
First on the table was the question of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling - a goal Republicans have been unable to reach despite years of trying.
Murkowski, 47, said Congress did support opening ANWR in 1995, but the effort died with a President Clinton veto. She said that's all the more reason to keep the GOP dominance in the Senate, where Republicans hold a 51-49 majority.
"The key is that we have a president who will sign ANWR this time," Murkowski said. "It's so important not to have John Kerry in office."
Knowles, 61, who also supports drilling in the refuge, said Republicans have failed because they have not reached across party lines - something he has promised to do throughout his campaign.
"We can make great progress," he said.
With Tuesday's election less than a week away, the battle between the two remains too close to call. It's a high-stakes race, with the GOP rallying to hold its slim majority in the Senate, which hasn't seated an Alaska Democrat in 24 years.
During the hour-long debate, the candidates rehashed arguments raised in a flurry of campaign ads in recent weeks. Knowles hammered on Murkowski's 2002 appointment by her father, Frank Murkowski, when he vacated the seat he held for 22 years to become governor.
Knowles, who initially said he would not to make nepotism an issue, has recently alluded to it in ads.
"I didn't make nepotism an issue," he said. "Frank Murkowski made it an issue when he appointed his daughter. Lisa made it an issue when she accepted."
The candidates erupted into a brief but tense exchange when Knowles again pounded on Murkowski for supporting recent legislation passed by Congress that he says amounts to $6.5 billion tax break for Exxon Mobil. Knowles has repeatedly said Murkowski should have demanded the condition that Exxon pay $4.5 billion in punitive damages to thousands of fishermen affected by the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound.
Murkowski reminded Knowles that Exxon has said the company would not benefit at all, but Knowles refused to back down.
"Exxon can say whatever it wants," he said. "All you have to do is do the math ... and you have $6.5 billion. That is a giveaway with no strings attached."
Murkowski said that number was pure fabrication. Earlier Thursday, she wrote a letter to Knowles, demanding that he start "telling the truth" in the final days before the election.
"I can't believe we're still here with this," she said at the debate. "That number was calculated by your campaign and is not a number based on reality."
The event was sponsored by the Anchorage Daily News and produced in front of a studio audience at KAKM, a public TV station in Anchorage.
Murkowski, Knowles and other Senate candidates are expected to participate in a forum in Anchorage on Friday at the yearly Alaska Federation of Natives convention.
On the Net:
Sen. Lisa Murkowski: www.lisamurkowski.com
Tony Knowles: www.tonyknowles.com
An interactive look at this year's Senate races is available at:
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