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

By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 30, 2010; C01

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.

"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."

* * *

This has been the mantra of the Murkowskis, and the Alaskan political establishment, for half a century.

Frank Murkowski ruled Alaska in a GOP triumvirate with Stevens and Rep. Don Young for decades. At one point, they were one of the most senior delegations in Washington and brought home billions in federal aid for state projects, some more necessary than others. In 2002, to the chagrin of much of the state, the elder Murkowski appointed his daughter to the Senate seat he vacated to become governor. Murkowski: The Next Generation redeemed herself with a hard-fought, validating victory over popular Democrat Tony Knowles in 2004 and started amassing real power in Washington. In recent years, Murkowski took on a leadership position under McConnell in the Senate minority; became the ranking member on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which her father had chaired; and took Stevens's place on the Appropriations Committee. She is poised to play a decisive role in both approving and appropriating funding for the Interior Department, which essentially controls 65 percent of Alaska.

In the meantime, her father and his allies, engulfed by scandal, have gone in the opposite direction. Frank Murkowski, who did not respond to a request to comment, badly lost a 2006 primary to Palin, an outsider from Wasilla vowing to clean up the politically corrosive oil industry. Then, in 2008, Stevens, under the cloud of a corruption investigation, lost a bid for his seventh term to Mark Begich, son of Rep. Nick Begich, who had defeated Murkowski to win the state's sole House seat three decades earlier. And 19-term congressman Young, by no means a stranger to corruption investigations, is increasingly a target for upstarts. With one generation of the establishment fading, Young argued that Alaska needed someone with seniority to take care of the state.

"Continuity is very, very important," said Young, who is supporting Lisa Murkowski. He added that upon her appointment in 2002, he made Murkowski promise that "she would serve no less than three terms."

Palin, who already shook up the establishment once in Alaska, has other ideas. But this time, instead of entering the fray as a candidate, she is playing kingmaker from the comfort of her Facebook page. Murkowski doesn't appreciate it.

The impact of a Palin "Facebook endorsement" was particularly unclear in Alaska, Murkowski said, because this was "the first election since Governor Palin has stepped down from office."

Murkowski defended, however, Palin's right to weigh in, saying that if Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty and other presidential hopefuls were not criticized for "thinking ahead" by strategically bestowing endorsements and PAC money, Palin shouldn't be, either. "I don't think that we should suggest that her motives are any different from anybody else who is looking to do something more."

Palin did not respond to a request to comment.

* * *

For all of Alaska's politicians, complaining about Washington and the sacrifice of being away from home is a requirement. But Murkowski is the first member of the congressional delegation to have been born in Alaska. Sorting through seal-skin slippers at an Eskimo-Indian craft fair, answering friendly salutations from strangers, and just walking near the white-spruce forests and rushing rivers seemed visibly restorative. She arrived Friday night from Washington in a creased gray pantsuit, exhaustedly wheeling a small silver suitcase past the stuffed polar and grizzly bears overlooking the luggage carousel. By the time she left, on Sunday afternoon, she was skipping around, talking about the "northern vigor" of Alaskan peonies, saying "fantabulous" at state picnics and waxing poetic about the majesty of snow.

Her weekend started in the parking lot between the Carlson Center and the Fairbanks Curling Club, where floats gathered for the Golden Days parade, which celebrates the gold-rush roots of Fairbanks. Slate-colored clouds temporarily blotted out the sun, and women walking around in ruffled, rain-dampened 19th century costumes. A house-size inflatable rubber duck leaked air and nearly collapsed onto a neighboring float as a long-shot gubernatorial candidate playing guitar on top of a truck sang: "I'm asking for your vote. I'm a truck-driving man."

By comparison, Murkowski looked remarkably regular. With her rail-thin figure clad in jeans and her unfussy hair hidden under the hood of a rain-beaded slicker, she arrived to talk up her own float, which was really just a flatbed decorated with a "Thanks Fairbanks, You're My Hometown" sign. Her affable husband, Verne Martell, a former owner of Alaska Pasta, tied state flags to the float with fishing wire.

Across the parking lot, Miller, Murkowski's primary opponent, held court in front of his own flatbed featuring an American flag fashioned out of red, white and blue garlands, plus chicken wire. With his back to two Army Stryker vehicles, Miller sipped from a tall white can of Rockstar energy drink and nodded as one of the soldiers encouragingly observed that Sharron Angle, who also had "tea party" support, came from out of nowhere to win the Republican Senate nomination in Nevada. A recent poll showed Miller trailing badly, but the candidate, a combat veteran and graduate of Yale LawSchool, dismissed the data point as a throwaway question on a Democrat's survey. The real evidence of the closeness of the race, he said, was that Murkowski "has been here continuously" to campaign.

Murkowski, he said, was "part of the ruling class, the aristocratical leadership or lack thereof." He complained that she was a Democratic enabler who voted for Obama's Wall Street bailout and perpetuated the mind-set that Alaska needed the largess of the federal government. "Alaskans are concerned about the state of the government and are willing to tighten their belts a little bit," he said. This race, he said, was not about Palin, though he allowed that her "endorsement certainly assisted us on the national stage."

About 10 a.m., the rain stopped, and Murkowski, now sporting a maroon windbreaker, started hitting her stride.

"Bernie!" she shouted upon seeing a man dressed in a stovepipe hat and driving a turn-of-the-century car. "He's Mr. Renewable Energy," she explained ebulliently. "He has a vehicle powered by french-fry oil." Friends and supporters came over to say hello while Martell lined up pink buckets of loose candy and dog treats. A woman in a golf cart approached to announce the parade's marching order.

"Lisa's people," she shouted. "You are following the duck."

Murkowski was a handshaking machine. Behind her, campaign workers gave out candy to little kids holding yellow bags sponsored by BP that read, "Alaskans for Litter Prevention and Recycling. Keeping Alaska Beautiful." The aides shook their heads in exasperation as Murkowski kept falling behind to chat with voters.

"I hope you beat Miller!" shouted Mary Demientieff, 60, as she shook the senator's hand. "Thank you, I'm working hard," Murkowski replied.

"But I'm a Democrat," Demientieff said as Murkowski marched on toward the rubber-duck float, which had overheated and broken down.

Demientieff explained that she appreciated Murkowski's moderate Republican politics.

"She wouldn't want to hear that, but I respect her for that," she said. "She's different. I like her more than her father."

* * *

Alaska is the largest state in the union. It is also the emptiest. Rivers outnumber roads. Vast acres of white spruce forests, mud flats, mountains and lakes chilled by glacial blue ice separate the cities. Population is concentrated in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau. Power is even more concentrated.

Murkowski's campaign argues that the small political class is more family than ruling gentry. New members constantly appear, and she just happens to be second-generation. A stroll with her through Fairbanks on Golden Days weekend was like following a popular aunt around a family reunion.

After the parade, the Murkowski team staked out spots on a small bridge to watch the weekend's rubber duck race, in which a yellow flotilla of bobbing bath toys is dumped into the river, each with a number corresponding to a ticket sold for a big cash prize. On the bridge, they bumped into Hollis French, a Democratic candidate for governor, and his wife. The two couples talked warmly about family and the time Murkowski's duck, to her mortification, came in first and she had to donate the prize to charity. As Murkowski hung over the bridge to see duck No. 4,139 cross the finish line, French mocked current Republican governor and Palin loyalist Sean Parnell for refusing to back Murkowski in the primary.

"She's going to be around for a long time," he said of Murkowski. "The state likes her and she's in a position of power."

Down the road, Murkowski bumped into Ethan Berkowitz, another Democratic candidate for governor and a friend from Murkowski's days in the state legislature. They joked about his graying hair and gushed about a former Murkowski intern who had gone to work for him.

According to Berkowitz, who commissioned the poll that showed Murkowski 32 points ahead of Miller, the departure of Stevens from the political scene meant "a recalibration of what politics we need and practice," and that while power had been dispersed, Murkowski was "at the top of the list of the people who assume that mantle."

The Murkowski campaign team piled into a Mercury Mariner hybrid and drove to a fundraiser in nearby North Pole, a town where the McDonald's sits on Santa Claus Lane. The senator, who has $2.4 million on hand -- 20 times more than Miller -- arrived at a McMansion version of a log cabin, with walls of stacked spruce trunks and turquoise doors. In the garden outside, bear pelts were perched on sticks like toupees to keep moose away, and a white tent shaded donors from the bright evening sun as they lined up for fresh salmon, potato salad and buckets of beer and wine. Murkowski schmoozed with about 30 donors.

She said hello to Roger Burggraf, who keeps a 10.6-ounce gold nugget in his pocket. She discussed Japanese icebreaker ships with Syun-Ichi Akasofu, director emeritus of the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, who had some reservations about her CO{-2} emissions resolution.

She asked him what papers he was working on. "Well, one is on aurora," he said, referring to the northern lights.

She grabbed a glass of red wine and talked about wintertime with Linda Hulbert, a New York Life agent.

"There are these incredible ice crystals that are bigger than these gold nuggets," the senator said, pointing at Hulbert's necklace. The cold, she said, is so intense that your nostrils stick together and your teeth ache. But the "crunch of the snow is so loud it hurts your ears. It's so stunningly beautiful."

Murkowski excused herself and Hulbert clucked disapprovingly about Palin's endorsement of Miller.

"Sarah's being an ideologue, which is unfortunate, because she didn't used to be that way," said Hulbert. "I respect Sarah, I like her. Her endorsement means nothing to me."

The supporters took seats under the tent, and Murkowski gave a rambling speech about the importance of slowing down an Obama administration that could be disastrous for Alaska, about how Washington is a form of "purgatory" between her weekend retreats and how she would do everything in her power to keep delivering for the state.

Suddenly her voice took on urgency as she pleaded with her longtime supporters not to get complacent, especially in the face of an enthusiastic primary opponent.

She paused to look at the group. "Everybody is watching us," she said. "Everybody is watching us."

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