Reporting from Anchorage — U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski held on to an apparent lead Wednesday in her write-in bid to hold on to her Senate seat in Alaska, though "tea party" candidate Joe Miller's campaign leaders said they were not nearly ready to concede.
With more than 98% of the ballots counted in the tense, three-way race, write-in ballots had gained 41% of the vote — a mark considered crucial to success by many analysts — while Miller still trailed with 34.2%.
Democrat Scott McAdams had 23.7%.
"This is about our state. This is about a can-do people. When they tell us we can't do something, what do we do? We stand up just a little bit straighter, a little bit taller, and we take it on," Murkowski told cheering supporters as her tally climbed steadily Tuesday night.
"We are not done yet. There's still a lot more out there, we know that. But there's been this growing momentum ever since the day since we started," she said.
If Murkowski succeeds, it would be the first successful write-in campaign for the Senate since 1954, and the first by a woman.
But Miller campaign officials cautioned that more than 100 candidates were certified as write-ins — most registered shortly before the election at the urging of conservatives seeking to upend Murkowski's campaign — and said it was premature to declare Murkowski a winner when the write-ins will not even be counted individually until Nov. 18.
The Alaska division of elections plans to individually scrutinize write-in ballots only after all of more than 40,000 absentee ballots are returned and counted.
"With 150 candidates we're fighting against, it's going to be interesting to see how it turns out…. In every game, the score fluctuates," Miller campaign manager Robert Campbell said.
"We've got to find out who those write-in ballots are for," he added. "I'm not trying to be disingenuous here, but there's got to be other names written down. I'm sure there are going to be two or three votes for Spider-Man."
Campbell said the Miller campaign and the Republican Party already have several teams organized and en route to Alaska to help oversee the ballot-counting process. "Some of them are lawyers," he added.
Murkowski also made it clear she was not yet claiming victory, and her campaign also has shifted into what campaign officials called "phase two," keeping open the office in Juneau for the upcoming write-in ballot count.
The uncertain finish capped an unusual and tumultuous campaign that began in August, when Miller, a Fairbanks attorney and former Persian Gulf War tank commander, unexpectedly defeated Murkowski in the Republican primary with help from the California-based Tea Party Express.
His message of rolling back federal entitlement programs captivated Alaskan conservatives committed to smaller government and states' rights, but it alarmed a large number of moderate Alaskans who feared the loss of the billions of dollars in federal aid that Murkowski and other members of the state's moderate Republican congressional delegation have steered toward Alaska over the years.
Murkowski was appointed in 2002 to the Senate by her father, Frank Murkowski, who was giving up the seat to become Alaska's governor. She was reelected in 2004.
Miller was a virtual unknown until the Tea Party Express stepped into the race with a large amount of money, and he won the endorsement of a longtime acquaintance, former Gov. Sarah Palin.
Murkowski spent much of the night Tuesday at Election Central, the main media center in downtown Anchorage, traveling from television set to television set backed by cheering, sign-waving supporters.
Miller's party at the nearby Snow Goose restaurant was more subdued, and he left abruptly after briefly addressing supporters and advising them to prepare for another day Wednesday.
"It's everybody — this generation and future generations that we have to be concerned about," he told them, according to the Anchorage Daily News. "But if we don't turn the nation around at this point, then it may not ever be an opportunity that we ever have again."