Looking to Alaska: State starts to matter, just a little, in presidential scene

Posted: Tuesday, December 18, 2007

ANCHORAGE - Barack Obama is opening a campaign office in Anchorage. Ron Paul's national campaign manager is planning a trip to Alaska.

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Hey, it might not sound like much. But having even a fraction of the presidential political activity of any given Iowa church basement constitutes political buzz in Alaska.

The state sort of matters nowadays on the presidential scene - at least a little, at least to a few campaigns.

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The state heightened its visibility by moving party voting to the Feb. 5 "Super Tuesday." Some 20 states will vote that day, the biggest primary and caucus voting day in U.S. history. In the last election, Alaska Democrats had caucuses in March and Alaska Republicans picked their delegates at a convention in May.

The races this time could all be settled on Feb. 5. Campaigns are focusing on those early states.

Elliott Bundy, a spokesman for Rudy Giuliani, said that's a reason the former New York City mayor's campaign has regular conference calls with its Alaska supporters.

"We're looking to win certainly as many of those states on Feb. 5 as we possibly can and use that date to propel Rudy to the nomination," said Bundy, who is originally from Anchorage.

Giuliani leads all of the presidential candidates in the amount of money raised in Alaska, having brought in $23,250.

Big Giuliani donors in Alaska include former Gov. Wally Hickel, Anchorage attorney Bill Bittner (the brother-in-law of U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens) and the politically active Anchorage doctor David McGuire, father of state Sen. Lesil McGuire. Anchorage Assemblyman Dan Sullivan is leading the Giuliani effort in Alaska.

But moving party caucuses to Feb. 5 hasn't convinced candidates to actually come to Alaska. It's the nation's most remote political outpost, with a small population that translates into not many delegates to the parties' national conventions.

Here's how it works: Each state's primaries or caucuses determine how many delegates are pledged to support a given candidate at the national conventions.

A candidate needs the majority of delegate votes to become their party's nominee for president.

The Feb. 5 "Super Tuesday" alone features 2,075 Democratic delegates at stake. Just 18 of those delegates are from Alaska. The same day there will be 1,110 Republican delegates up for grabs. The Alaska Republican Party has 29 of them.

The closest Alaska has come to a visit from a major presidential contender was in September. And it wasn't that close. One of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's five sons, Josh, came up to Anchorage for the state Republican Party picnic at Kincaid Park.

Josh was no trendsetter. "Other than Mitt Romney's son we have not had (Republican) candidates or campaign people here yet," said Cathy Giesse, vice chair of the Alaska Republican Party. "That could change after the first of the year."

Mike Gravel, who represented Alaska in the U.S. Senate from 1969 through 1980, did come to Anchorage in August and raised money for his long-shot Democratic presidential bid.

But his latest Federal Election Commission filings, which cover through the end of September, show that Alaskans aren't opening their pocketbooks for their former senator. Gravel has reported raising just $1,476 in the state. That's less than Republican long-shot candidate Tom Tancredo.

Gravel donors include a $250 check from former Gov. Bill Sheffield and $100 from John Devens, the former Valdez mayor and congressional candidate who directs the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council.

Obama is the first candidate with plans to open a campaign office in Alaska, including a single paid staffer. Moving the state's Democratic caucus up to Feb. 5 made the Obama campaign takes a closer look at Alaska, said Ray Rivera, the western states caucus director for the campaign.

The outcome was already decided by the time of Alaska caucuses in past years, he said.

Rivera said winning Alaska would help the Obama campaign show geographical diversity in its support.

Obama has raised more campaign cash from Alaska, $21,224, than any other Democrat.

His contributors include Anchorage School District Superintendent Carol Comeau and state Sen. Kim Elton of Juneau.

But will Obama visit Alaska?

"There's probably not a good chance," Rivera said.

The Obama campaign is renting office space in the Alaska Democratic Party headquarters in Anchorage. The state Democratic Party made the same offer to the other Democratic front-runners, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards.

The Clinton campaign hasn't responded.

The Edwards campaign responded that they "have other plans," said Mike Coumbe, executive director of the Alaska Democratic Party. Coumbe is not sure exactly what that means.

Edwards campaign spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield did not return a phone message from the Anchorage Daily News.

One candidate who has some vocal grassroots support in Alaska is Ron Paul, a Republican congressman from Texas with a libertarian bent. Paul's supporters are active in organizing "meetups" through the Internet and have set up a Web site at http://ronpaulalaska.com/.

Paul's national campaign manager, Lew Moore, is planning a trip to Alaska in the coming weeks. Paul ranks third among Republican candidates in Alaska fundraising, just behind Giuliani and Romney.

Alex Crawford, a Ron Paul volunteer in Anchorage, said Paul's appeal goes beyond Republicans. He's getting a lot of support from independents, Libertarians and Alaskan Independence Party members as well, he said.

They'll have to register as Republicans to back Paul in Alaska's Feb. 5 polling.

"These are the same people to get Sarah Palin elected (governor)," Crawford said.

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