Gov. Murkowski's re-election chances difficult to predict

Polling shows potential challengers have own problems

Posted: Monday, December 12, 2005

The governor's race is less than a year away and pollsters say November approval ratings for Gov. Frank Murkowski are second-lowest in the country. But Murkowski, who has yet to say if he'll seek re-election, said he's confident that if he decides to run, he'll win.

In a monthly poll by the national firm SurveyUSA, Murkowski, a Republican completing his first term, ranks just ahead of Gov. Bob Taft of Ohio in lowest approval ratings among the 50 governors.

Taft, a Republican, pleaded no contest in August to charges that he violated state ethics laws. Murkowski has consistently ranked 49th in the poll's approval ratings, the Anchorage Daily News said.

"If I decide to, I will run and win," Murkowski said recently.

He may be right: Polling currently shows potential challengers have problems of their own. And the Democratic field is uncertain until former Gov. Tony Knowles, who served two consecutive terms, announces whether he'll run again.

Sarah Palin, a Republican candidate and former Wasilla mayor, has promising early poll numbers. Much of her support so far comes from registered independents and nonpartisan voters, some of whom told pollsters Hellenthal and Associates that they usually vote for Democrats - a potential problem in Alaska where the Republican primary is open only to registered Republicans and voters who aren't affiliated with any party.

Palin's unworried: "Seventy percent of Alaskans will be able to pick up that Republican ballot and cast their votes for me," she said.

Other potential Republican candidates are awaiting word on whether Murkowski will run again. Murkowski spent 22 years in the U.S. Senate before winning election as governor in 2002; he hasn't lost a race since 1970.

SurveyUSA, based in New Jersey, conducts opinion polls for television stations. None of its clients is from Alaska, but the company polls here to compile a 50-state ranking. Murkowski's approval ratings declined after he eliminated the longevity bonus for many elderly; dropped direct state payments to local governments; and raised state oil taxes.

Anchorage pollster David Dittman, who typically works with Republicans, said when he tested Murkowski's popularity in October - just, Dittman says, to satisfy his own curiosity - he found a 35 percent approval rating. Sixty-one percent registered disapproval and the rest were unsure, Dittman said.

Of those who disapproved, 22 percent said they didn't like Murkowski's style.

Those voters could be won over, Dittman said, adding that personal dislike could be converted to "grudging admiration" with the right message.

Ivan Moore, an Alaska pollster working for Rep. Ethan Berkowitz, a Democratic candidate for governor from Anchorage, said voters don't gravitate to people they do not like. "It's as simple as that," Moore told the Daily News. "People vote for (candidates) they have good feelings about."

Moore said polling numbers for Berkowitz so far reveal negatives in the teens and positives in the upper-30 percent range.

A Hellenthal and Associates poll from summer showed Berkowitz with a 28 percent "positive" or "somewhat positive" and a 12 percent "negative" or "very negative."

More than 20 percent were neutral on Berkowitz and almost 40 percent had no idea who he was. Berkowitz is the Democratic House minority leader.

Moore and the Hellenthal poll say Berkowitz has higher name recognition than the other declared Democratic candidate for governor, state Rep. Eric Croft, of Anchorage. Croft's positives in the polls were lower than Berkowitz's. But so were his negatives.

A key unanswered question for Democrats is whether Knowles will enter the race. Knowles was elected to two terms as governor, then lost a bid for the U.S. Senate in 2004.

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