ANCHORAGE - Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski began a drawn-out battle Wednesday for every ballot with her handwritten name on it in her bid to come back from a primary defeat that forced Alaskans to choose between Sarah Palin's tea party and the state's GOP establishment.
Meanwhile, the overseer of Alaska's elections told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the counting of write-in ballots will begin Nov. 10, with the hope of having a clear winner by late next week.
With 99 percent of precincts reporting Wednesday morning, write-in votes represented 41 percent of the vote. GOP nominee Joe Miller had 34 percent; Democrat Scott McAdams, who all but conceded Tuesday night, had 24 percent.
While Murkowski celebrated the fact she was still in the race, it remained to be seen whether the write-in votes would keep her in office.
She was one of 160 candidates following conservative calls urging Alaskans to sign up to disrupt her campaign. Though she focused heavily on educating voters on how to cast a vote for her properly, it's not clear how many did so, filling in the ballot oval and writing "Murkowski" or "Lisa Murkowski." And while election officials plan to be lenient in deciphering voter intent in determining whether a ballot for Murkowski counts, they've provided no set standard for what would be allowable.
"At this point, without a single write-in ballot counted, Lisa Murkowski has no claim on a victory," Miller said in a statement on his website Wednesday. Expressing confidence he'd win, he added: "this campaign is not over!"
Murkowski was confident, too: "We're doing this," she said, choking up in front of supporters Tuesday as she stood with her husband and two sons. "We're doing this."
If Murkowski is successful, it would be historic. No U.S. Senate candidate has won as a write-in since Strom Thurmond did it in 1954.
A final ruling could take weeks - and could come in the courts.
The latest tally didn't include potentially tens of thousands of absentee ballots that election officials don't plan to begin counting until Tuesday. Election workers plan to begin counting write-in ballots the following day, in Juneau, to avoid keeping citizens and candidates in the dark about whose names are on the ballots, Lt. Gov. Craig Campbell said. The count could take three days, he said, adding that he hoped Alaskans would have a "pretty clear answer" on who won by the end of next week.
That may not be the last word: campaigns will be allowed to have observers in the room to make note of any ballots they challenge. Dec. 9 is the deadline for an election challenge to be filed in superior court.