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It 'was a tough day for Alaska'

Republican leaders call for convicted Sen. Ted Stevens to quit before the election. Back home, he still has fans.

October 29, 2008|Kim Murphy | Murphy is a Times staff writer.

ANCHORAGE — No one, it seemed, was eager to mention it: Four candidates were at the table for Tuesday's debate at Anchorage West High School, all of them running against U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, but Stevens himself was nowhere to be seen.

The Senate's longest-serving Republican has been the empty chair at most candidate debates this fall -- at best, a face on a video screen, answering taped questions. Now that his federal trial in Washington has ended with his conviction on seven felony corruption charges, nobody on the stage seemed to want to dwell on that, either.

The verdict has been greeted in Alaska with shock, embarrassment and, at least among hard-core Stevens backers, occasional anger.

There are growing calls for Stevens, 84, to step down even before he faces the voters Nov. 4. On Tuesday, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the GOP vice presidential nominee, called for him to resign. So did her running mate, John McCain, and the Democrats' presidential nominee, Barack Obama. Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky also said Stevens should step aside.

At the debate, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich made one of the event's few references to Stevens. "Clearly, yesterday was a tough day for Alaska," said Begich, who is running for the Senate on the Democratic ticket. "But one thing about Alaskans: We know how to be resilient and move on."

Stevens, who was convicted of failing to disclose gifts, is scheduled to return to Alaska today to resume his campaign.

"I am honored and humbled to continue to have the support of so many Alaskans," he said in a statement. " . . . I look forward to coming home and listening to Alaskans about the issues that will define this election."

Across Anchorage, many residents said they had always admired Stevens for his decades of service and had been inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. But testimony about the senator's repeated failure to report gifts from an oil industry lobbyist, and about a secretly recorded phone call in which he appeared to know he might be perceived as having committed a crime, weakened some Alaskans' willingness to forgive.

"I've always been a conservative Republican," said Rob Evans, 62, a retired insurance agent. "I might have voted Republican. But the fact that he would get something without reporting it -- all he had to do was make sure it was reported. If people feel like they're above the law, then kick 'em to the curb."

"Some people here are weird enough that they would go ahead and vote for him no matter what he's done," said Sherry Eckrich, 65, of Eagle River. ". . . But for people whose ethics are different from his, I think they are concerned enough that they would change the way they vote."

Still, political analysts said Stevens retained a solid base of support.

"They should have tried him here in Alaska. I'm sure it would've been a different result, or at least he would have gotten no more than a slap on the hand," said Tim Walsh Sr., 65, a retired insurance broker. "He's fabulous. People love him. And he would look like Mother Teresa compared to the stockbrokers in New York."

Stevens picked up endorsements Tuesday from the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission and retired Lt. Gen. Thomas G. McInerney, former head of the Alaska Command and assistant vice chief of staff of the Air Force.

Polls over the last several weeks have shown Stevens running about even with Begich. But a new poll taken over the weekend by Craciun Research Group Inc., just before the verdict came in, showed Begich ahead by 12 points.

GOP strategists here are urging Stevens to keep trying to win reelection, which would allow him to step down or be ousted by fellow senators. Either way, a replacement would be chosen in a special election.

"The majority of Alaskans are conservative. They have strong family values and very strong faith in their convictions," said the state's Republican Party spokesman, McHugh Pierre. "And if those voters want a like-minded person representing them in the U.S. Senate, they need to vote for Sen. Ted Stevens."

But state GOP leaders were bucking the top of the ticket.

McCain called the senator's conviction "a sign of the corruption and insider dealing that has become so pervasive" in Washington.

"It is clear that Sen. Stevens has broken his trust with the people and that he should step down now," McCain said in a statement. "I hope that my colleagues in the Senate will be spurred by these events to redouble their efforts to end this kind of corruption once and for all."

Palin said she hoped Stevens "would take the opportunity to do the statesmanlike thing and erase the cloud that is covering his Senate seat."

"Alaskans are grateful for his decades of public service, but the time has come for him to step aside," the governor said in a statement. "Even if elected on Tuesday, Sen. Stevens should step aside to allow a special election to give Alaskans a real choice of who will serve them in Congress."

State officials are researching whether Stevens himself is eligible to vote. State law bars those convicted of felonies involving "moral turpitude" from casting ballots.


Times staff writer Richard B. Schmitt in Washington contributed to this report.

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