We're passing a few hours at Sal's Klondike Diner, scoping out that noted liberal George W. Bush and the coming economic apocalypse and life as a serf in America's frozen colony.

Our tour guide is George Martin, a 58-year-old Republican Party official in Alaska's Kenai peninsula--known to the locals as "the Big K." Forty thousand very conservative souls tucked in a mountainous finger of fjordland the size of New Jersey.

"Things are deteriorating very fast morally and politically." Martin runs his lips over his gums. "The feds are locking up the state. Russia isn't benign like they tell us. Our bubble dot-com economy is about to explode. It could be Germany in the 1930s."

"George W. is wishy-washying around." He leans forward and confides: "I wouldn't be surprised to find out he's a Trilateralist, New World Order guy. Wouldn't be surprised at all."

It's the secret language of Alaska's Republican Party activists, a vertical colony beset by a federal dictatorship and illegal taxes. A place where Republican "traditionalists" are at war with "mainline Republicans" and statewide votes are often splintered along ideological lines. Where Sierra Clubbers, tree huggers and animal worshipers are seen as leading the forces that would pasteurize Alaska.

Martin and his fellow conservative activists--who dominate the state party's ranks--spent much of the past week dabbing on war paint and prepping for the state's presidential straw poll. It's their quadrennial chance to roar against their state's Republican establishment and the federal government, to plant their banners for the forces of Right: Steve Forbes, Alan Keyes, Gary Bauer . . .

Buchanan won the state's straw poll in 1996, Forbes came in second, and Bob Dole finished a distant third. (This year Bush edged Forbes by five votes out of about 4,000, but hard-core conservative candidates garnered 65 percent of the total vote).

This is more than just a fratricidal dispute in a frozen corner of the world, a darker, colder, far-right version of the Iowa caucuses. What's playing out in Alaska is the larger drama of the American West.

It's the collision between the ethos of the Last Frontier and the ethos of the Last Wilderness.

"The frontier mythology overwhelms Alaskans; they are constantly getting blindsided by reality," says Stephen Haycox, a professor at the University of Alaska at Anchorage. "They don't realize that government built this state, and that the rest of the country now views Alaska as the last wilderness, a place to be preserved, not despoiled."

Martin and his friends in the Big K might not buy the spin, but they don't dispute the stakes. Martin made his way to Alaska 40 years ago, after doing this and that in California. (Like many Alaskans, he gets a little vague when talk turns to his former life "back in the United States.") He peers out of the diner at a landscape of snow and strip malls that make no pretense of landscaping. Beyond are thousands of acres of white-dusted pines and icy lakes, caribou runs and razor-edged ridges.

He sees clouds coming together and none of it looks good.

"The Lower 48 wants to put this whole place under lock and key," he says. "We've got an influx of people bringing in their planning and zoning ideas. Maybe we should just shut the doors and secede. Of course down here"--he chuckles--"we'd probably just become Chechnya."

Alaskan Gulag

The drive north to the Matanuska-Susitna Valley (known as the Mat-Su) skirts vaulting mountains, sharp and jagged like flakes of granite hurled into the ground. A low winter sun fires the snow wafting off the high peaks and the car shakes in the Chinook wind that sweeps the flats.

Two decades ago the Mat-Su Valley, 20 miles north of Anchorage, was the frontier. Today the mountainous, glacier-rimmed valley of moose and brown bear has towns that stretch along two-lane roads in a blur of McDonald's, Pizza Hut, Carpet World and Deals on Wheels. It has, in other words, become America. By the arctic.

It's also one of the most conservative places in Alaska.

"We kicked out the last Democratic mayor years ago. She ran again and almost didn't get any votes." Charlie Huggins, retired Army, laughs good-naturedly. "We are very individualistic people and we don't want dictatorship by the government."

Vadney Bledsoe nods. "I hate for the federal government to tell me what to do--the whole idea is ludicrous. In Alaska these days, it's heads we lose, tails we lose."

Heads nod around the table at the Pilgrims Baptist Church, an aqua-colored place of worship in Wasilla. There are eight Republican district leaders from across the Mat-Su, people with the easy manner of the far suburbs gathered to discuss Alaska. Their hearts and primary votes are with Keyes, Forbes and Bauer, but most say they will vote for Bush in November.

These are, in their view, desperate times.

"The federal government is breeding unrest [by restricting some lands for native hunting]," says June Burkhart, a retiree with Republican elephant earrings who moved to the Mat-Su years ago from Oregon. "They're messing things up."

Roger McEwen, 56, a retired civilian employee with the Army, shakes his head. "It comes from the anti-fur people, the people who don't think you should step on a bug, the animal worshipers. We've had it. No one cares about Alaska."

Whenever conversation wheels toward the federal and state governments, the tone is early gulag. And the views have an inner logic. Ninety-five percent of Alaska's land is owned by the federal government. Vast chunks are tied up in national parks and national forests, and federal law in some cases forbids the state from laying roads in. Millions more acres are owned by Native American tribes. In the rain-cloaked southeast, thousands of square miles of forest are sealed off and pulp mills are shuttered.

So there it is. The case for the counterrevolution.

But the Mat-Su is as good a place as any to deal with an Alaskan paradox. Because the valley, like all of Alaska, is a welfare queen. The federal government built the state: its highways, its ports, its schools and airstrips. It set aside millions of acres of forest for the timber industry and helped lay the roads and build the mills.

And Mat-Su came in for special attention. The FDR administration rescued Depression-era farmers in Minnesota and resettled them in the Mat-Su, which in its brief summer is a photosynthesis festival spiked with LSD: cabbages the size of picnic tables, tomatoes like free weights . . . This was to be Alaska's breadbasket and the government gave every farmer a house and barn.

For a while, Mat-Su and Alaska repaid in kind, becoming Democratic bastions of the New Deal variety. Then came oil and Prudhoe Bay. The legislature wiped out the state income and sales taxes. And it established an oil-fueled fund that sends an annual check to every adult Alaskan. The amount this year topped $1,300 per person.

The federal spigot is still open, too. A Republican congressman in Oklahoma released a year 2000 pork list recently. Texas, New York--these states averaged a dollar or two per capita; Alaska averaged $125 per person.

"Alaskans don't like to talk about the reality of their psychological and economic dependence on government," says Haycox, whose book on Alaskan history is due out this year. "Alaska is like the rest of the West, only more so. Settlement here would have been impossible without the federal government."

The crowd at Pilgrims Baptist Church wouldn't deny Alaska's political heritage. More than a few hail from families of FDR Democrats. But those days are past.

"I believe, firmly, that 70 percent of the federal government outside the military is unconstitutional," says McEwen, a soft-mannered man who lives in Wasilla. "The Constitution doesn't allow for welfare or federal involvement in schools."

Didn't the federal government help build Alaska? McEwen will give you that one, no problem.

"If we didn't have all the federal money up here, we'd have a lot less people coming in. And some of us think that'd be just fine."

Arctic Edges

"An old-timer once told me that Anchorage has a saying about newcomers: They were either misfits or on the run. Nobody came for the weather."

--Kim Rich, writing about her father,

an Alaskan mobster

Those arctic edges are more sanded now. Drive around Anchorage and you'll find a grunge scene, nose rings and condos that climb the flanks of the Chugach mountains. But scratch around in most Alaska towns and you find the honky-tonk: the pink espresso shacks and XXX strip joints, the rows of dull yellow and brown apartments with old refrigerators piled outside, the car dealerships and drunks reeling across sludgescapes. In the southeast, hippies live on old fishing boats, and in the burg of Sitka, a town witch was elected.

The vast outback, the land that if laid across the Lower 48 would stretch from Florida to California, is a Homo sapiens nature preserve. Alaskans call them "originals."

"We've got a saying in Alaska: The odds of finding a man are good, but the goods are odd."

Fred Agree laughs at his own joke, and the chuckle carries a sardonic self-awareness. He's short with a low center of gravity and shoots sidewise glances at you as he talks. He's got a swagger that's less Trapper Creek than South Philly. Which, as it happens, is where he was born and raised. He's Jewish and years ago, the winds carried him to Israel and an Army stint. And then to Rhodesia.

Now he lives 115 miles north of Anchorage. A 300-square-mile neighborhood of "bush" dwellers within the shadow of 20,320-foot Mount McKinley. Agree raises mush dogs.

"I'm a conservative Republican but I'm also gay-tolerant and the first Jew most of them ever met. They don't know what to make of me," Agree says. "Alaska is an extreme land and extreme people come here."

That's the myth that drives and comforts Alaskans, anyway. More than a few Mat-Su Valley men wear grizzly claw necklaces, but the vast majority of Alaskans live along the civilized edge of this frozen subcontinent. Mention that, and Agree doesn't waste even a word arguing the point.

"Most Alaskan Republicans are 'traditionals' because they think they're rugged individualists," Agree says. "It's a posture. Put them out in the bush without their McDonald's and you have a problem."

Agree's wife races in the Iditarod, a sled dog race that curls across the wildest stretches of Alaska. Agree doesn't race, though. He's content to be that daily double of the Alaska bush: an outsider among outsiders.

"Let's face it, it's very goyische up here."

The Straw Poll

Kenai, this land of misty boundaries between sky and mountain, of sun-fired peaks and avalanche sheds, holds many a nest of eager Jacobins. And George Martin and Michael Taurenian and many more were nursing fond memories and sharpening their guillotines last week.

In 1996, Buchanan had descended into Kenai like Napoleon returned to Paris. When the straw poll came a week before Iowa, "the men and women of Kenai were like Braveheart, waving their pitchforks," recalls Tom McKay, the young state chairman.

A Republican in the relatively more liberal hippie town of Homer, down on the tip of the peninsula, limns the local pecking order: "Republicans here start with conservatives and end up in black-helicopter land. They vote for third-party candidates even if that means the Republican candidate loses. And they don't care for people like George Bush."

So the party establishment organized a counter-revolution this year. Thermidor. Some Anchorage luminaries proposed deep-sixing the straw poll altogether. But they settled for something no less crippling.

They would ensure that Alaska could not hold its straw poll before Iowa, thus denying the state its share of national media attention. And in a 39-36 vote, the state Republican committee stamped this decision. "Forbes is at 3 percent nationally, Bush is campaigning in 50 states," says Art Hackney, a prominent Anchorage Republican. "This is a silly blip for party activists." The arctic revolutionaries loosed a howl at the perfidy.

"They want to do anything they can to elect the son of lying-lips Bush," Martin says. "I was raised a radical Republican and I want an Alaska for the people and I've got no use for Big Tent."

Election night. A heavy snow blankets the Mat-Su, depressing turnout a bit. The Kenai votes Right and Right again, but in nowhere near the numbers of 1996. Among the apostles of the arctic right, Forbes does best of all. But he falls five votes short of Bush.

It's so darned frustrating.

"They did a great job of convincing people that we're a bunch of wild-eyed frontier extremists fighting for an outdated Alaska," Martin says. "Can you believe that?"

CAPTION: On the edge of the continent, Republicans held a presidential straw poll, and they're not shy about voicing their opinions.

CAPTION: James Clark votes in Wasilla, Alaska. Republicans scheduled the state's straw poll after Iowa's to minimize national attention.

CAPTION: In Anchorage, Youths for Forbes watch their candidate lose by only five votes to Gov. Bush.

CAPTION: Fritz Pellum counting the votes Monday. The Republican straw poll pulled a low voter turnout.

CAPTION: Tom McKay, Republican Party chairman in Alaska, records the straw-poll results in Anchorage as far-flung districts call them in.