With his no-bill, no-compromise position on the highly controversial Alaska lands issue, Sen. Mike Gravel (D-Alaska) is the odd man out -- some say the spoiler -- in Congress these days.
But his negative reviews in Washington are not hurting him in Alaska, and may be helping his once apparently bleak reelection chances.
Only three months after showing Gravel trailing his top Democratic primary challenger by nine percentage points, a Republican-commissioned poll now shows him leading the Democratic pack by roughly the same margin.
And, although the poll shows Gravel running behind the likely Republican nominee and questions the popularity of Gravel's stand on the lands issue, a growing number of observers are saying that he may be able to parlay his self-proclaimed "hell, no" approach to the lands bill into victory this fall.
The issue is all-consuming in Alaska at this point, and Mike has positioned himself -- oh, you better believe he's shrewd -- to capitalize on all the confusion and consternation over it," an Alaska Republican said.
"Come Nov. 5, you won't be able to find anyone who voted for Mike Gravel," said an Alaska Democrat who is here for the Senate debate on the lands bill. "But there he'll be, right back in the Senate."
Gravel denies that he's used the issue to buttress his campaign back home, insisting that he's taken the hard road politically on the issue. But he says his opponents are suffering for having supported a legislative solution to the dispute, which could produce a bill that Alaskans don't want.
"Right now, they're up a creek without a paddle," he said, with obvious pleasure.
All of this is a far cry from what was being said a few months ago about Gravel, 50, a two-term senator who's viewed as a lone ranger by his supporters and as a loose cannon by his foes, who include some well-placed senators in both parties.
"Gravel is the most vulnerable senator up in 1980," said Republican senatorial campaign committee Chairman H. John Heinz III (R-Pa.) in an April rundown of GOP prospects that was sent to political action committees that dole out money to candidates.
"If he doesn't get bumped off in the primary, any of a half-dozen Republican candidates could retire him in the fall," Heinz added.
Republicans still contend that he can be beaten, but a recent report from the Free Congress Foundation, a conservative, Washington-based group, concludes that "the Republicans may not have an easy time capturing this seat" because of the relative obscurity of their candidates.
"Even while virtually all of Gravel's primary challengers, Democratic and Republican, have been attacking the senator for his 'no-bill' position on the lands issue," the report said. "Gravel's emotional, no-compromise, anti-Washington appeal to Alaska voters seems to be having an effect."
Among major Alaska leaders, Gravel is alone in opposing any lands bill this year, reinforcing his maverick, loner image. In contrast, his Alaska colleague in the Senate, Minority Whip Ted Stevens (R), undertook the traditional senatorial chore of trying to negotiate a compromise, often a thankless task.
The bill would impose varying degrees of protection on huge segments of Alaska, with pro-growth forces and environmentalists squaring off over the map, almost acre by acre.
Architects of a recent Senate "compromise," which has been criticized by both Stevens and environmentalists from different vantage points, are negotiating with House leaders in hopes of getting a bill the House will accept, thereby skirting the risk of a Gravel-Stevens filibuster of a conference report. The House earlier approved a more pro-preservation bill.
Although most Alaska polls indicate that most Alaskans want the dispute resolved by legislation, Gravel can claim that a bill unsatisfactory to Alaska proves the merits of his strategy.Only a bill satisfactory to Alaska, which appears unlikely, would disprove it.
In any case, Gravel has been able to ride a popular tide on the issue for months, right up to the eve of the primary, endeavoring to make the bill -- rather than him -- the principal issue.
The primary election on Aug. 26 is an open one, with three Democrats and six Republicans listed on the same ballot. Each party's highest vote-getter will be its nominee.
Gravel's main Democratic challenger is Clark Gruening, a former Anchorage state legislator and grandson of the late U.S. senator Ernest Gruening, an Alaska patriarch whom Gravel unseated in the Democratic primary 12 years ago.
The Republican front-runner is Frank Murkowski, a Fairbanks banker and moderate conservative who ran unsuccessfully for Congress 10 years ago. In second place in the polls is Art Kennedy, a former administrative assistant to Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska).
The race has been spiced -- and complicated -- by the glacial relations between Gravel and Stevens, who has gone so far as to inject himself into the Democratic primary on Gruening's behalf.
Their poles-apart approach to the current lands dispute does not begin to plumb the depth of Stevens' personal as well as political animosity toward Gravel, which prompted him in June to say that he could support Gruening in the primary to get rid of Gravel, although he emphasized that he would back the Republican nominee in the fall.
Even some of Stevens' friends worry that he has played into Gravel's hands by letting his anger show, particularly in light of the fact that Gravel responds publicly with a turn-the-other-cheek disavowal of animosity.
"He's not hurting Gravel, he's hurting himself," said an Alaskan who sides with Stevens on the lands issue. "Mike pulls his chain and counts on him to overreact."
Even his critics say that one of Gravel's strong points is an ability to turn nearly everything to his political advantage.
Take the Carter administration and its apparent unpopularity in Alaska, for example. Gravel noted in a recent interview that Interior Secretary Cecil D. Andrus, who advocates a pro-preservation lands bill, has taken him to task publicly on the lands issue. "We're thinking of making a TV spot out of it," Gravel said.