Tea Party feels the pressure as counting begins in Alaskan poll

Court battles loom over 90,000 'write-in' votes in bitter battle for US Senate seat

The tumult of the midterm elections long behind them, Republicans in Washington are gearing up to take control of the House of Representatives and a wounded Barack Obama is midway through a tour of Asia. But in a warehouse on the outskirts of Juneau, Alaska, the battle for votes is still in full swing.

Starting shortly after breakfast yesterday, officials with the state elections department took their seats at rows of what looked like school-examination tables to begin poring through some 90,000 of the ballots that were cast more than a week ago in what was already one of the most closely watched US Senate races.

It pits Joe Miller – the official Republican candidate who had the backing of the ultra-conservative Tea Party movement and of the former governor Sarah Palin – against the moderate Republican incumbent from Alaska, Lisa Murkowski. But prospects for a quick resolution of this rare electoral cliff-hanger do not look bright.

Hovering on the sidelines are the legal teams of both sides ready to pounce if they see anything they don't like as the count unfolds. Many fear a legal wrestling match similar to the one between George Bush and Al Gore in 2000.

Mr Miller, who has extreme views on slashing federal government spending, including social security, thought he had his Senate seat sewn up when he defeated Ms Murkowski in the Republican primary in August. She, however, surprised almost everyone by re-entering the fray, saying she could hold on to the seat as a write-in. That required her supporters to fill in an oval indicating they had their own candidate in mind and then writing down her name.

It was a long-shot manoeuvre (no one has got to the Senate as a write-in since 1954) but on election night, it seemed to have paid off. Write-in ballots accounted for 40 per cent of the votes, versus 35 per cent for Mr Miller and 23 per cent for the Democrat candidate in the race.

It is those write-in ballots that are being hand-counted now. Most pundits expect that that early advantage will translate into victory for Ms Murkowski. But nothing is certain, partly because no one can yet know how many of those write-ins were actually for her: more than a hundred other write-in candidates joined the race in the last days of the campaign purely to muddy the waters for Ms Murkowski.

While the final balance of power in the US Senate will be unaffected by the outcome – Ms Murkowski would be expected to vote with Republicans if she is returned to Washington – the stakes are high not just for the candidates but also for Ms Palin.

The former governor laid some of her prestige on the line backing Mr Miller. It was a move driven partly by a long history of enmity between her and the Murkowski clan. If Mr Miller does win, moreover, his presence in Washington will considerably bolster the profile of radical Tea Party supporters in the upper chamber.

On Tuesday, the Miller camp filed a federal lawsuit asking for a requirement that votes be added to the Murkowski tally only when her name has been spelled precisely. If Mr Miller wins that court claim, that could seriously undercut Ms Markowski's chances of prevailing. The Murkowski camp, meanwhile, has loudly condemned Mr Miller's legal assault.

Inside the warehouse, meanwhile, teams of two were assigned tables to being the work of counting the 92,000 write-in ballots and sorting the Murkowski votes from all others. Hovering over them at all times will be state monitors to make sure errors aren't made. And beyond them lurked the lawyers from each side.