Top national Democratic leaders are aggressively pushing Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich to challenge the longest serving Republican in Senate history: Alaska's Ted Stevens, who is under federal investigation.
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Begich recently spent a day in Washington, D.C., meeting with seven U.S. senators, including Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, Finance Chairman Max Baucus of Montana and Chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chuck Schumer of New York.
Begich told The Associated Press that meetings lasted at least 30 minutes with each senator. He said each lawmaker urged him to take on Stevens, who has held office since 1968.
Begich, 45, said he hasn't yet accepted the challenge.
"It's humbling in a lot of ways because these meetings were not an in-and-out shuffle," he said. "Their message was clear: They would love for me to serve in the U.S. Senate.
"As the day progressed, it closed out with Reid and Schumer, and it was a hard sell at that point."
A spokesman for Reid declined to comment on the visit. Calls placed to the other senators who hosted Begich were not immediately returned.
The Democratic National Committee does not comment on meetings with potential candidates, said spokesman Matthew Miller. The Alaska Senate race, however, is a priority, he said.
"It should be one of most competitive races in the country next year," Miller said. "You see front-page examples of Republican scandals, so this opens up an opportunity for our party."
Begich, a two-term mayor, said the trip was a follow-up to phone calls he regularly takes from those encouraging him to take on Stevens.
Stevens is part of a federal corruption investigation that includes former Alaska state lawmakers and U.S. House Rep. Don Young.
Stevens has not commented on details of the investigation but has said that it could ultimately dog him in the 2008 election. His campaign spokesman Tim McKeever could not be reached for comment.
But Democratic leaders nationally and statewide have since looked to seize what they believe is their best chance to unseat the powerful incumbents.
They have taken out television ads, launched Web sites and looked to established Democratic names like Begich, for help.
So far only former Alaska House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, of Anchorage, has responded to party requests to run. He recently filed for Young's seat.
Support also is mounting within the state for Begich. The Alaska Democratic Party believes Begich is a viable candidate to unseat Stevens, said Chairwoman Patti Higgins.
"In my opinion, if the Democrats are going to win the seat, it would be easier if Mark were the candidate," she said. "He's a brilliant administrator and we need to get people in there who will restore integrity into politics."
Last week, the state party posted a Web site called www.retireted.com, which promotes pushing Stevens out of office.
The site highlights Stevens ties to oil field services executives who have pleaded guilty to bribery charges. It has received nearly 300,000 visits, said party spokeswoman Kay Brown.
In an earlier statement, McKeever criticized the group for "mudslinging and innuendo by creating a conjecture-ridden and factually inaccurate Web site."
Begich said his visit east, which also included meetings with senators from Montana, Minnesota and Arkansas, helped him gauge the situation in Washington. But it didn't produce a decision.
"I'm not being pressured into making a decision early," Begich said. "I'm confident that I have plenty of time.
"If I decide to run, it's not because of any of the political data points are right or because of any polls," he said. "It's because I believe I'll have something fresh to offer."
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