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Two titans of Alaska politics may be toppled

August 20, 2008|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

FAIRBANKS, ALASKA — The motorcade that blew through the chilly morning recently turned more than a few heads in a city that's seen it all: a dozen full-throated Harley-Davidsons ridden by guys covered with black leather and tattoos, and an elderly U.S. senator bringing up the rear.

Ted Stevens emerged from his car for a campaign rally to the sound of cheers from his supporters and a round of hearty handshakes from his burly motorcycle escorts.

"We love him," said Michael Kane, leader of the local Harley club, before he and his men moved inside the packed campaign headquarters to empty the doughnut platters. "He's done 40 years of service to this state, getting money for the state for stuff we absolutely need. He's a great man."

If there have been any immutable facts of life in a state chiseled by shifting glaciers, it is the state's two iconic politicians: Stevens, 84, the nation's longest-serving Republican senator; and Don Young, 75, the Republican who has held Alaska's only House seat for the last 35 years.

Together, they have helped build one of the nation's wealthiest states out of an unruly territory, pushing foreign fishing fleets out of Alaskan waters, opening the way to oil development on the North Slope and using their considerable power from decades on Capitol Hill to funnel billions of dollars of federal money into roads, schools, hospitals and rural development.

But the two men who once were considered unbeatable now face bruising fights in Tuesday's primary election that could put their once solidly Republican congressional seats up for grabs. Both have been caught up in a long-running federal investigation that has already seen three GOP state lawmakers, the former governor's chief of staff and three others convicted on corruption charges.

Stevens was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of concealing $250,000 in home renovations and gifts from an oil services firm. Young, who faces a highly unusual election challenge from his party's lieutenant governor, has spent more than $1 million defending himself, though he has not been charged.

Many Republicans across the state have rallied to the politicians' defense, arguing that the state risks losing their proven ability to deliver billions of dollars in federal grants and projects for Alaska.

"This indictment thing? You go to Washington, D.C., and if anybody can throw the first stone, I'd like to meet them," said Judy Geraghty, a Fairbanks resident who attended Stevens' campaign rally. Stevens "has done so much for the state. And it took time to build up the seniority to be able to do it. Why throw that away?"

But some Alaskans have another view. A large sign in the shape of a slice of bread appeared briefly near Wasilla this month. "Ted's Toast," it said.

"There's a definite attitude of wanting a change, to the point where a lot of people don't care what it is. Just make a change; get them out. We hear that on both sides of the aisle, Republican and Democrat," said Diane Benson, a Native Alaskan writer and Democratic Party activist who is running for Young's seat.

Young is running neck and neck in the polls with his leading Republican challenger, Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell. Stevens appears likely to win the primary, but in a general election match-up, he is trailing Anchorage's Democratic mayor, Mark Begich.

"We could lose. This could become a blue state; Obama could take this state," said Anchorage developer David Cuddy, who leads the pack of six Republicans challenging Stevens in the primary. "Can you imagine if Sen. Stevens is spending the final five weeks of this campaign in a federal courthouse, facing felony corruption charges, and every night the news is covering it? He's going to lose 2-to-1 in November."

The internal Republican struggle, pitting moderates like Stevens and Young against Gov. Sarah Palin's supporters from the religious right, is the most serious of its kind in a state that hasn't favored a Democrat for president since 1964, said Carl E. Shepro, a political science professor at the University of Alaska.

"People are -- I don't know if 'disgusted' is the right word, but -- with the appearance that you can do these things and think you're going to get away with it," Shepro said. "And the other thing is: It seems like they've all sold out for very little money -- and that's kind of embarrassing."

Stevens has predicted that he will be acquitted and has successfully pushed to have the trial moved up to Sept. 26 in order to put the case behind him before the general election.

Cuddy, 55, only started seriously campaigning in late July, after Stevens was indicted. Former U.S. Treasurer Angela "Bay" Buchanan, who managed the three unsuccessful presidential campaigns of her brother, conservative Patrick J. Buchanan, has signed on to run his election effort.

"If the election were held tomorrow, I think Ted Stevens would beat me," Cuddy admitted. But his campaign had already made great strides and, he said, still had some time to work with.

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