It was minus 5 degress and dark outside this morning when Census Director Kenneth Prewitt brought his census sales pitch to the state with the lowest participation rate in the last count.

Only 52 percent of Alaskans mailed back their census forms in the 1990 census, which Prewitt attributed to a mixture of antigovernment sentiment, fear and indifference. Nationally the mail response rate a decade ago was 65 percent.

Tomorrow Prewitt is to begin the 2000 census count himself in remote Unalakleet, an Eskimo village of about 800 people on the Bering Sea. Although Alaska is being counted early, most Americans will receive their census forms in March.

Today, though, he directed his fill-out-the-forms plea to 60 civic leaders, business people and representatives of ethnic groups at a breakfast in a converted movie theater.

"A lot of programs that remote Alaska in particular needs will be targeted based on census data," Prewitt said.

Census data will decide how much money many communitites get for roads, schools, health clinics and job training, Prewitt said, in addition to allocating political power.

Prewitt urged Alaska's leaders to improve the state's participation rate this time: "When the census is over, you want a different story told about Alaska," he said.