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Alaska Sen. Murkowski embraces new outsider status with write-in campaign

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 10, 2010; 6:53 PM

IN ANCHORAGE "Fill in the bubble! Write in the name! Fill in the bubble! Write in the name! Fill in the bubble! Write in the name!"

So the chant went at a rally for Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski outside the public library here on a brisk recent Sunday - the soundtrack to one of the more striking and peculiar dramas of this year's fluky election season: the write-in campaign of a sitting U.S. senator.

After her loss in an August primary to tea-party-backed lawyer Joe Miller, Murkowski's senate career was assumed to be over. Another head-in-the-sand incumbent who just didn't get it.

But then, against all advice, including from fellow Republicans, Murkowski decided that she did get it - and was willing to fight for it.

Now, despite the hurdles in the way of a write-in victory, Murkowski is stirring passion and energy. It helps that the "entrenched incumbent" is suddenly the underdog, turning the year's throw-the-bums-out theme on its head. If she succeeds, Murkowski will join Miller, of all people, as one of the year's unlikeliest winners.

"It's kind of fun," Murkowski said during a recent campaign trip down Alaska's majestic Kenai Peninsula, where she went from a senior center to a cocktail reception to a firefighters convention with the urgency of a long shot. "It's fun to be turning the tables on your primary opponent, who was making such a big deal about how he is running against the establishment, and now he has been embraced by the establishment. I've been kind of booted off, and we're now the insurgency."

It's true that Miller beat Murkowski in part by portraying her as a Washington insider with a too-liberal record who felt entitled to her position - a job she was originally appointed to in 2002 by her father, then-Gov. Frank Murkowski. It's also true that national Republicans discouraged her from mounting the write-in bid and have pledged their support for Miller.

But it's strange that a Murkowski in Alaska could be an underdog. And it's just as odd to characterize her campaign as an insurgency - a campaign that during the primary held a 10-to-1 cash advantage, that is gathering election lawyers and strategists in preparation for a contentious ballot count, that is busy honing the message that this unusual mission belongs to the people and exists solely to "put Alaska first."

In any event, the "insurgency" is surging. Murkowski, tall and reserved, has bounced back from her defeat with a ferocity that's almost out of character, reminding voters why they like her: She listens intently, she understands Alaskan issues - fishing, infrastructure needs, energy - and she is a native, born in Ketchikan, raised in Fairbanks. According to several recent polls, the effort is paying off; Murkowski is either within striking distance of Miller or in a dead heat with him.

M-u-r-k-o-w-s-k-i

"I was heartbroken when she conceded to Joe Miller," said Elizabeth Koutchak, 45, a native Alaskan of Inupiat and Tlingit heritage. Koutchak began volunteering for Murkowski three weeks ago after never before being politically active. "My heart went from broken to high spirits when she announced the write-in campaign. I said, 'Lisa, this hard-working truck driver supports you.'"

Koutchak was among hundreds of supporters who sang, danced, chanted and waved signs at the Anchorage rally. The steady flow of passing drivers joined in, honking their horns.

But while Murkowski has inspired supporters to make plenty of noise, the more pressing question is whether she can get them to color and spell.

Come Election Day, her name won't be on the ballot. Instead, voters must look past the list of names they will see - including Miller and Democratic nominee Scott McAdams, who is running third in the polls - to the final choice: "Write-in." But it's not enough to just write her name on the line. Voters must also fill in the little bubble next to it.

It's unclear how accurately voters must spell Murkowski. State law indicates only that voters must signify "intent," but whether "Lisa M." or some mangled spelling of "Murkowski" counts is unknown.

What seems certain is that this is going to be another one for the lawyers. There are sure to be some ballots with debatable intent, possibly enough to make the difference in a close election. And what about this rumor running through Anchorage that some other "Lisa M." will declare a write-in candidacy? How will election officials deal with that?

All of this explains why mechanics are the star of Murkowski's revived campaign. She has ordered 50,000 "Live Strong"-style bracelets - one for every 10 registered voters - imprinted with her full name, an image of the crucial bubble that voters must remember to darken,and the instruction "Fill it in. Write it in."

Her team is brainstorming unconventional TV ad ideas to enforce the point. And they're soliciting ideas from voters to reinforce the message that it's all about them. She has even launched a contest to compose a catchy jingle.

"This should be something that Alaskans are going to be humming for the next 12 years - 'Remember when Lisa Murkowski was running that write-in campaign?' " Murkowski said. "I'm convinced that in order for it to work, you've got to have this excitement about doing something different."

Another challenge for Murkowski is overcoming the notion that took root during the primary - that she is a Washington-centric incumbent who has lost touch with Alaska. Miller had a lot of help in creating that image. He was backed by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, whose rivalry with the Murkowski clan dates to her unseating of the senator's father as governor in 2006. And the Sacramento-based Tea Party Express spent $500,000 on Miller's behalf during the primary; the group is hoping to do the same this month.

At a press conference in Anchorage last week, Tea Party Express Chairwoman Amy Kremer debuted two new advertisements, one touting Miller's military record and the other characterizing Murkowski as a sore loser whose Senate seat was a "gift her daddy gave her."

Miller won the primary on the less-government-is-better-government approach that is rallying voters nationally. But it's not clear whether that's why he won. Relatively few voters turned out for the primary, and many who did were conservatives interested in a ballot initiative on restricting abortion access. The death of former senator Ted Stevens two weeks before primary day also hurt Murkowski, who was forced to pull two ads with the popular "Uncle Ted" backing her candidacy.

Federal largesse

Murkowski is betting that the November electorate will be more appreciative of her view that Alaska should continue to seek as much federal money as possible.

"I firmly believe we need to do a better job reducing our spending and our deficit," Murkowski told a small group of voters gathered at a local inn in Cooper Landing last weekend, some of whom asked her for help securing federal money for a nearby trail project. "This project here would not be funded [without earmarks.] I can just tell you right now that will come to us by way of an earmark. "

That message is resonating with an array of groups. The state's commercial fishermen are backing her, and so are its firefighters. Even some voters who say they were compelled by their own disgust with Washington to vote for Miller are now reconsidering.

"I think people want to know more about Joe," said Steve Ames, 54, an electrician on Kodiak Island. Ames, originally from Connecticut, voted for Miller and has mixed feelings about how Murkowski wasappointed to the Senate by her father. But he isn't a fan of what he calls "extremism," either.

"Alaskans generally don't like government - that's why they moved here," Ames said. "But I don't think they know how much our state gets from the feds."

Murkowski is also no longer pulling her punches. On Thursday, she criticized Miller after he said his family has used Denali KidCare - Alaska's low-income health program for children - even though he has criticized Murkowski for supporting it.

Miller is running a different campaign compared with Murkowski's. His primary campaign was about being an outsider who was willing to rattle Washington. But this week, Miller is fresh from a fundraising trip in Washington. His public schedule is spare, and his campaign is working closely with the National Republican Senatorial Committee to book TV appearances and set up phone banks.

Miller's campaign did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.

For the senator running from the outside, it's about gathering one vote at a time.

"We can do this," Murkowski told a roomful of senior citizens in Cooper Landing, a tiny village overlooking the emerald-green Kenai River.

No group seems too small for Murkowski; at the Cooper Landing inn she met with fewer than 10 people over lunch.

"I hope you make it, girl!" shouted Al Hirschberger, 85, a retiree who saw Murkowski at a cold and rainy pheasant hunt in Soldotna earlier the same day.

"Thank you! Thank you!" Murkowski shot back.

And then she got right to the point of what really matters to her in this oddest of elections.

"Do you know how to spell the name?"

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