ANCHORAGE - Write-in ballots held the lead in the Alaska Senate race late Tuesday, a good sign potentially for Sen. Lisa Murkowski's long-shot effort to keep her job.
If the trend holds, it could mean another nailbiter end to a race between Murkowski and tea party favorite Joe Miller, who defeated her in the GOP primary by 2,006 votes.
With 256 of 438 precincts reporting late Tuesday, write-ins had 39 percent of the vote. GOP nominee Miller had about 36 percent and Democrat Scott McAdams had about 24 percent.
Miller told supporters gathered in Anchorage to go home for the night, and he also left a party early, after 10 p.m. He told them they would know more in the morning.
Murkowski is one of 160 write-in candidates eligible for the race. The write-in count only speaks to total ballots cast for write-ins - not to names written on them.
Lt. Gov. Craig Campbell, who oversees elections in Alaska, said that if write-ins finish first, he would ask the Division of Elections whether workers could begin the task of determining who the write-in vote-getters are perhaps within the next few days in an effort to avoid keeping the candidates, and citizens, in the dark for the next two weeks.
"I don't think we need to wait for an arbitrary date," he told The Associated Press. "The whole point is, we want to do the right thing and we want to do it as fast as we can."
The division has said it likely wouldn't begin counting names on write-ins - if the threshold to count them was tripped - until about Nov. 18. The first batch of absentees votes isn't expected to be counted until next Tuesday, Nov. 9.
Division Director Gail Fenumiai said she'd prefer to do the write-in count at one time, not piecemeal, but she said a decision on what approach to take would probably be made in the next few days.
A cliffhanger ending could be a fitting end to what's been a drama-filled Senate race.
Murkowski is seeking to make history as the first U.S. Senate candidate since Strom Thurmond in 1954 to win as a write-in. Her campaign saw a possible omen in the San Francisco Giants' winning their first World Series since '54 on Monday.
The race featured a rematch between Murkowski and Miller, the political upstart who won the August GOP primary with the support of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party Express.
The two went tit-for-tat during a general election that saw McAdams, a former local school board member and mayor of Sitka, seeking to stay out of the fray and raise his own profile among Alaskans - and even Democrats - who had little idea who he was after his primary win.
Throughout the race, Murkowski stressed her seniority and cast herself as a voice for all Alaskans, not just conservatives. Miller, meanwhile, said he was an outsider - in spite of getting backing from within the Republican establishment - and a reformer who would be unyielding in pushing for change in an out-of-control Washington.
Miller sought to overcome a series of campaign hiccups that he attributed partly to the inexperience of his campaign staff and his not being a "professional politician," and partly to opponents desperate to distract voters' attention from the issues.
Miller had to acknowledge that he or his family received government benefits, the likes of which he's questioned as a limited government candidate.
Also, his security detail handcuffed a journalist after a town hall - an incident that was included in a Murkowski ad against Miller.
Finally, records released last week showed Miller had admitted to lying about improperly using government computers while a borough attorney in 2008.
Miller has said he's not perfect and cast himself as an Everyman, angry at a federal government that's out-of-control and willing to work to scale it back to the powers spelled out in the Constitution.
McAdams cast himself as the only moderate and progressive in the race, and he urged Alaskans to vote their values and not out of fear - a nod to the concerns some voters have had about Miller and whether Murkowski or McAdams was more capable of succeeding.
McAdams all but conceded Tuesday night, saying that he believed he got "about half" of Democrats over to his side. He said that if he'd had another month, he believes he could have won.
"We're very happy with what we've done," he said. "We left it all on the field."
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