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Lisa Murkowski battles for GOP hearts as Palin grows louder in Alaskan expanse

Murkowski faced long-shot challenger Joe Miller in the Aug. 24 state GOP primary. The road to reelection grew more challenging after Sarah Palin endorsed Miller.

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By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 30, 2010

FAIRBANKS, ALASKA -- In the perpetual daylight of Alaskan summer, Sen. Lisa Murkowski spotted Rich Doran tying one of her campaign signs to a tree on the bank of the Chena River.

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"So how you be?" Doran greeted her, as she climbed a grassy slope.

"I be fine," Murkowski said, admiring the sign. "Got good friends supporting me."

"Between your dad and you," responded the craggy-faced Doran, who was wearing campaign buttons boosting both Murkowskis and former Republican senator Ted Stevens, "I've probably built over 1,000 yard signs that say Murkowski on them."

For all Sarah Palin's nationwide recognition, the first name in Alaskan Republican politics is still Murkowski. Actually, it's Lisa.

"Hi, Lisa!" and "Hey, Lisa, shake my hand," and "Lisa, could we take a picture?" coffee-sippers on lawn chairs shouted as Murkowski, 53, marched a parade route past the Aurora Energy factory and the Ice Museum ("See a bit of winter inside"), handed out hot dogs to old couples and self-fashioned frontiersmen and then cheered competitors in the one-foot high kick and the blanket toss at the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics. During her campaign sweep through Fairbanks last weekend, it was clear that the state's senior U.S. senator, who was originally appointed to the job by her father, Frank, had succeeded in making a name for herself.

But Palin, who took the governor's mansion from Murkowski's father only to prematurely relinquish it last year, finds Murkowski lacking. Despite Murkowski's "mama grizzly" cred as a mother of two teenage boys and the state's most prominent female official, Palin upset the Republican establishment in June by instead endorsing Joe Miller, a stubble-cheeked and baritone-voiced conservative who is good buds with her husband, Todd.

"It strikes me as odd," Murkowski said.

The endorsement has complicated the race for Murkowski but has also created an opportunity for clarity. After political observers have spent months scouring races nationwide for evidence of Palin's right-wing reach vs. the staying power of bring-home-the-bacon Republicans like Murkowski, it turns out that the ideal testing ground may be the women's own Alaskan back yard.

"Relationships are key in a state like this," said Murkowski, who is the Alaskan Republican establishment's last best hope for a bridge to somewhere. Sitting in a rocking chair in a longtime fundraiser's house, she called herself the hometown girl from Ketchikan, where she was born; but also Juneau, where she lived as a kid; and Fairbanks, where she went to high school; and Anchorage, where she practiced as a lawyer and now lives. Over the years, she said, she had gotten to know all the "people who are moving and shaking" in Alaska. "And I don't know Joe Miller, and I think that says something."

She argued that her intensified opposition to the Obama administration and her controversial -- and ultimately unsuccessful -- resolution to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and factories had nothing to do with protecting her right flank from Miller's accusations that she is a RINO, or Republican in Name Only. Nor, she said, did it have anything to do with a "directive" Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

"Everything that I do," she said, "is what is best for the people that I represent."


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