Stevens' voter support split after corruption conviction

Before the verdict, polls showed a tight race for Senate seat

Posted: Sunday, November 02, 2008

ANCHORAGE - Bear Ketzler has voted for Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens for more than three decades, but now he struggles to hold on to his support after the Republican icon's conviction on federal corruption charges.

"I'm torn," said Ketzler, 51, of Fairbanks. "I guess I'll be going into the voting booth after more soul searching."

Ketzler, who is registered as an independent, has plenty of company.

There are many shaken fans of the 84-year-old senator. Stevens was found guilty Monday of lying on Senate records to hide hundreds of thousands of dollars in home renovations and gifts he received from a millionaire businessman.

The Senate's longest serving Republican plans to appeal his conviction. He has snubbed pleas by John McCain and party leaders to drop out of the race against Democratic challenger Mark Begich, the mayor of Anchorage.

Even before the verdict, polls showed a tight race between the two, with some Alaska Republicans even forming a group supporting Begich. On Friday, two of the state's major newspapers endorsed Begich, saying Stevens' conduct has crippled his effectiveness.

"I think it gives people real pause to vote for a convicted felon," but they might not want to vote against Stevens, said Stephen Haycox, a University of Alaska Anchorage history professor who has observed Alaska politics for almost four decades.

Haycox said he's even heard some Stevens supporters saying they might not even go to the polls for Tuesday's general election. Others, including Anchorage pollster Dave Dittman, said Stevens' 40 years of service may still pay off.

"I don't think you can count him out," Dittman said. "With his history in Alaska and his history of integrity, you could see an upswell of popular support and goodwill."

Anchorage Republican Chris Warner is among the staunch supporters of Stevens.

Warner, an oil field safety manager, said the senator's trial struck him as weak and based on technicalities, "like they were fishing for something." He said his support never wavered, even after the verdict, believing that Stevens never intentionally lied or tried to hide anything.

As far as he is concerned, Stevens has every right to stay in the race.

"I'm still going to vote for him," he said.

Republican Duane Deal of Anchorage isn't so sure, even though he's voted for Stevens numerous times. What really bothers him is that Stevens is saying he is not a convicted felon, at least until the appeal process is over.

"It's got me wondering what planet he's on," Deal said Friday.

Stevens on Thursday said he wouldn't consider himself convicted until the appeal process is exhausted.

Stevens believes he got an unjust verdict after an unjust trial and will spend the final days of the campaign getting that message to voters, said spokesman Aaron Saunders. Stevens will be "working 18-hour days" reaching out to skittish or undecided Alaskans.

"I think that people have questions and the senator is answering them directly," Saunders said. "He'll be reassuring people that he's going to continue serving and exploring the variety of legal options he has."

Stevens was to campaign Saturday in Fairbanks and Sunday in Wasilla, Saunders said.

Begich also will be out on the campaign trail, telling Alaskans he is ready to serve immediately. Stevens, on the other hand, would be consumed with appeals trying to clear his name, said Begich campaign spokeswoman Julie Hasquet.

"Ted is busy and doing what's right for Ted," Hasquet said. "Alaskans deserve better than a convicted felon."

Begich planned to campaign Saturday in Homer, Kenai and Soldotna. Sunday, he plans to campaign in Anchorage in the morning and Fairbanks in the afternoon.

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