Sen. Lisa Murkowski's write-in vote total pulled ahead of Republican nominee Joe Miller's for the first time Monday afternoon, as the nearly week-long counting process draws to a close.
Murkowski now has 91,517 votes, compared to Miller's 90,458, with several thousand more write-in ballots yet to be counted and likely to add to Murkowski's lead.
The Miller campaign is challenging several thousand ballots for Murkowski it says were not correctly filled out. As of the end of counting Monday, that amounted to 7,549 challenged ballots.
What may decide the race is whether or not Murkowski has enough votes to win without the challenged ballots, said Randy DeSoto, Miller's campaign spokesman.
"We're still feeling good about the numbers," DeSoto said.
He said Miller expects to pick up some more votes from the remaining absentee ballots.
"We think that, based on previous trends, we'll gain in the absentee ballots against Sen. Murkowski's number," he said.
"Probably a number of those will be from overseas, from military members who voted strongly for Joe in the primary, and we anticipate they'll again vote strongly for Joe in the general," DeSoto said.
DeSoto acknowledged that Murkowski was now in the lead in total ballots, but not in unchallenged ballots.
"We haven't crossed the threshold yet for ballots that are not contested," he said.
How Miller does in today's balloting will decide whether he keeps fighting in court or concedes, DeSoto said.
"As long as there are those ballots that are contested that we feel have not reached the legal requirement of (the write-in name) being the same as it is on her declaration of candidacy or her last name, we'll go forward," he said.
"We have to have the law upheld."
Miller's observers continued to challenge what they considered questionable ballots Monday, rejecting more than 13 percent of the Murkowski votes, among the highest rates since the count began.
Still, consistently since the count began last Wednesday, more than 97 percent of the write-in votes were clearly for Murkowski, Elections Director Gail Fenumiai has said.
Murkowski campaign manager Kevin Sweeney said not only does he expect that a court would consider many of the challenged Murkowski ballots to be clearly valid Murkowski votes, so are some of the ballots that Fenumiai has rejected. That means that Murkowski is in a strong position to win even if Miller does continue to battle in the court system.
"The math looks very good for Lisa," Sweeney said.
He said Murkowski is on track to exceed Miller in not just total votes, but uncontested votes as well.
"When that happens we expect him to concede this race as he has indicated he would," Sweeney said.
DeSoto said Miller wouldn't continue a fight that was clearly not winnable, such as if the number of uncontested Murkowski votes exceeded Miller's total.
"What Joe has said is that when we get done with this whole count process, if she had the numbers that were unchallenged, there wouldn't be any point in going forward with the lawsuit," he said.
Counting resumes today at the Elections Division's temporary site on Thane Road at 11:30 a.m., and will go until it is finished, Fenumiai said.
Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or email@example.com.