Southeastern voters could swing results

Palin leads statewide, but regional ties may alienate rural areas

Posted: Sunday, November 05, 2006

Republican candidate for governor Sarah Palin is from Wasilla, one of Alaska's fastest-growing communities in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. It remains to be seen whether there are enough pro-Palin votes in the populous region for her to overcome Democrat Tony Knowles' support in Southeast and Bush Alaska.

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The answer could be yes, at least according to a Republican polling organization. A late October survey by Dittman Research showed Knowles with a 2-1 lead in rural Alaska, and a lead almost as dominant in Southeast. Palin, however, was leading statewide by 48 percent to 39 percent.

Palin's support is mostly in Central and Southcentral Alaska. She was leading in Anchorage, though by a smaller margin. More recent polls have shown Knowles closing the gap.

Palin's upstart candidacy stunned the nation when she bested Frank Murkowski, a nationally known politician, in the August primary, polling 51 percent of the Republican votes to Murkowski's 19 percent.

It was a different story in Juneau, however.

Palin received 12 percent of Republican votes here, with Murkowski receiving twice as many votes and former legislator John Binkley winning with a strong showing of 62 percent.

Some of Binkley's support, he said, came from those who wanted to make sure the capital stays here.

Limited support

Juneau Republican Primary

• John Binkley: 62 percent.

• Frank Murkowski: 25 percent.

• Sarah Palin: 12 percent.

Source: Alaska Elections Division. Numbers do not add up to 100 because of rounding and minor candidates.

"I've always been a strong proponent of keeping the capital, in my Legislative days and since then," Binkley said.

Binkley also noted his long history in Juneau, where he and his family lived during sessions and he coached soccer. He's encouraged his many friends and supporters to vote for Palin.

"I think the people of Alaska are ready for a change," he said. "I think people will chose a new governor not tied to the past."

Palin may have a difficult time holding on to Binkley's supporters, however, especially if their key issue is protecting the capital.

Although Knowles has always run well in Juneau, in part because of his strong support for Juneau as capital, the Dittman poll found Knowles leading 60 percent to 32 percent throughout Southeast. Knowles has continued to work to shore up that support, and regularly visits the area.

The capital-move issue may continue to hurt Palin, as her position has shifted from supporting the move when she was mayor of Wasilla to opposing it now. Knowles has continued to criticize Palin for being open to letting the Legislature, but not the capital, move from Juneau.

In rural Alaska, Dittman found Knowles favored over Palin by a 60 percent to 30 percent margin. The remainder went to independent Andrew Halcro and other candidates, or undecided declarations.

Much of that strong rural support for Knowles may come from Alaska's Native community.

At the recent Alaska Federation of Natives conference in Anchorage, the Anchorage Daily News reported the delegates overwhelmingly supported Knowles - despite Palin's husband's Yupik heritage.

Knowles said that may stem from his long history on rural and Native issues, especially supporting rural preference for subsistence hunting and fishing.

"I want a constitutional amendment protecting a way of life for rural Alaskans," he said.

Rural and Alaska Native support for Democrats has a long history, but it's issue-oriented, said Clive Thomas, Alaska government professor at University of Alaska-Southeast.

"Rural natives, their concern is largely Native issues as opposed to Republican or Democrat issues," he said.

On a statewide television broadcast, the candidates were asked to say where in Alaska they'd live if they couldn't live in their hometowns. Both gave answers that could help shore up their bases.

With Juneau evidently already in his camp, Knowles said "someplace with snow," and suggested Fairbanks or Kotzebue.

Andrew Halcro said "someplace warm." When the moderator reiterated that the question was about Alaska and asked if that meant Ketchikan, Halcro said he liked Ketchikan, Petersburg and especially Sitka.

Palin tried to dodge the question, saying she'd live in the Mat-Su Valley, which she described as the state's "most progressive" area. That's where she already lives. When pressed, she said she'd live someplace else in the valley, perhaps Palmer, if she couldn't live in Wasilla.

"Laugh if you will," she said, but she stuck by her answer.

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