White-hot battle for frozen Alaska

The fight between moderates and right-wingers for the Republican soul is being waged across the US – and nowhere more fiercely than in Sarah Palin's home state, writes David Usborne in Anchorage

The snow line is descending quickly on the mountains around Anchorage but the dipping temperatures are not matched in the state's politics where the incumbent US Senator Lisa Murkowski is in a fiery fight to stop a fellow Republican with backing from the Tea Party – and Sarah Palin – from snatching her seat.

It is on the one hand a soap-opera feud between the state's two most politically prominent women, though Ms Palin has a proxy in her corner, the radical conservative Joe Miller. But it also mirrors the battle going on across the land for the soul of the Republican Party, torn between moderates and the surging Tea Party.

The poison between the Palin and Murkowski clans has a long history. The former governor Frank Murkowski – who appointed his daughter, Lisa, to take his old seat in the US Senate in 2003 – was driven out in a landslide in 2006 by Ms Palin, who painted the Murkowskis as belonging to an old, corrupt elite.

The present misery for Murkowski began on a Tuesday in August when voters came out in the Republican primary. Mr Miller – a local lawyer, father of eight and son of a Christian bookshop owner in Kansas – campaigned on a promise to emaciate federal government in Washington and win back states' rights. Ms Murkowski barely took him seriously, but he won, albeit by the slimmest of margins.

She, in theory, was out of contention, except that two months later, and three weeks away from voting on 2 November – when America elects all of the House of Representatives, a third of the US Senate – the red and white "Vote Lisa Murkowski" signs are again reforesting downtown Anchorage. After licking her wounds, Ms Murkowski decided to fight on, launching a write-in campaign. Her name will not be on the ballot sheets as the Republican runner. But voters can take a pencil and add it if they want. No one has won that way since Strom Thurmond in 1954 in South Carolina. It is a long shot indeed.

It is also politically cheeky. But there were enough people in Alaska sufficiently appalled by the prospect of Mr Miller representing them in the Senate to persuade her to get back into the fight. Among them was Ivan Moore, a high-profile Alaska pollster and commentator, who made the case in his weekly newspaper column. Ms Murkowski surely had something else in mind also. The woman who had sent her father reeling four years ago and who is now the Queen Bee of the Tea Party was not going to skewer her so easily.

That Ms Murkowski has fallen foul of the resurgent right is no surprise: she is a moderate, she is not a raving anti-abortionist, she occasionally dares to mention the word "tax", and doesn't sleep with the American Constitution under her pillow. Moderate Republicans like her have been felled this year already in Nevada, Kentucky and, famously, Delaware.

But Mr Moore, who has done polling for both parties, accuses Ms Murkowski of "sleepwalking through the primary campaign" with an "appalling lack of awareness" of what was going on in her party. She had no notion she might not win. But he has no doubts that she is doing the right thing with the write-in campaign, however uphill it might be. "She had to do it because Joe Miller is completely insane," Moore bluntly explained over coffee in his Anchorage home. "It was her civic duty to run on behalf of all Alaskans." Mr Miller, he says, "whoops up a firestorm of right-wing lunacy, wrapped in the flag, wrapped in nationalism and creates this anti-government fervour."

But Mr Miller's main message resonates well with conservatives: the federal government under Barack Obama is spending itself into bankruptcy. Like most people, Mr Moore does not think that the Democratic Party candidate, small-town mayor Scott McAdams, has a hope of prevailing. Republicans dominate in the state. So either Ms Murkowski clings on or Mr Miller goes to Washington. Once there, he vows, he will begin his mission of closing the Department of Education and ending what he calls "dependency" in America by abolishing the federal minimum wage and social security.

At a public debate organised by Alaskan Native groups in Anchorage last Thursday, Ms Murkowski and Mr Miller – meeting face-to-face for the first time – jousted politely for 90 minutes. But while the sitting senator attempted to highlight her achievements on behalf of Alaska in the Senate, Mr Miller drew whistles and applause with his populist anti-government assaults. "We are on the road to disaster," he declared over and over. Never mind that Alaska, ever since becoming a state, has depended like no other on the largesse of the federal coffers. Asked by one questioner if he would support four international treaties awaiting ratification, his answer was clear: "No, no, no, no."

In an interview afterwards, Senator Murkowski allowed disdain briefly to flicker across her face. Mr Miller, she suggested, had used the debate to deploy "glib sound bites". Was she referring to his answer to the treaty question? "Correct, correct, correct, correct," she replied.

Polling this race is hard because of the write-in dimension. If you ask about Ms Murkowski, you have already skewed the results, because her name won't be there in the voting booth. Mr Moore thus demurs when asked to predict what will happen. In the end, he believes it will come down to whether "the love that the right-wing people in Alaska have for Miller can be exceeded by the utter horror felt by others about his winning".

Events here became even odder last week after the surfacing of a livid email from Todd Palin to Mr Miller excoriating him for alleged disloyalty to his wife. Mr Miller's crime – the two men have since tried to make up – was to duck and dive when asked if he thought Sarah had the qualifications to become president.

"Sarah put her ass on the line for Joe," the email began, "and yet he can't answer a simple question : 'Is Sarah Palin Qualified to be President?' I DON'T KNOW IF SHE IS. Joe, please explain how this endorsement stuff works, is it to be completely one sided ... Put yourself in her shoe's, Joe, for one day." On Twitter, Ms Palin downplayed the row. "There's no 'there, there' but the lamestream media will keep on trying," she wrote.

An entirely unscientific survey of afternoon barflies in the Mug Shot Saloon, a determinedly dingy establishment just across the railway tracks from Ms Palin's home in Wasilla, north-east of Anchorage, found patrons completely at odds over Ms Murkowski write-in effort. "She shouldn't be doing it, it's as simple as that," says Dudley White. "She got her ass beat and so that's it."

But his drinking buddy, 82-year-old Gunny Kutler, thinks otherwise. "I like the fact that she doesn't quit. That's the American way."

Jerry Lewis – his driving licence confirms the name – admits that he voted for Ms Murkowski in August but now plans to back Mr Miller because he is the official Republican candidate. It is partly also because Mr Miller better channels his dislike for the president. "Obama is killing this country. Every decision he makes means another 10,000 lose their jobs. It's almost as if he is doing on purpose."

Talk Palin in the bar and you find a surprising ambivalence. Lewis points to a spot on the stained floor where he once shared wine with Ms Palin, before she even became governor. But he echoes what others say: her support for Mr Miller may have "been more of negative than a positive". Polling numbers confirm what he is saying. The one-time wildly popular governor has an approval rating in Alaska lower than President Obama's nationally. Her negative rating in the state, Mr Moore says, stands atmore than 50 per cent.

Very clear, however, is the consensus in Mug Shots on the recent pronouncements of Levi Johnston– the on-again, off-again, son-in-law of Ms Palin – that he wants to be mayor of Wasilla, following in her footsteps. Loud peals of laughter ring out all around the horse-shoe bar. Not going to happen.

Back in the church hall where the debate has just finished, Mr Miller is confronted by a foreign reporter about his opposition to those international treaties, one of which would enshrine the new missile arsenal reductions agreed by the US and Russia. He looks angered by the question, directs the journalist to an aide and rushes out the door. The aide, sadly, has no clue how to answer the Russian question either.

Popular write-ins

* The last attempt to win an Alaskan senate seat by a write-in vote happened 42 years ago. Democrat Ernest Gruening failed to be nominated by his party in 1968 so he launched a write-in campaign and won 17.4 per cent of the vote. It was only enough for third place.



* Only one senator has ever been elected without their name printed on the ballot paper. When US Senator Burnet R Maybank died in South Carolina in 1954, the late Strom Thurmond (the longest-serving senator in American history) ran as a write-in against the South Carolina Democratic Party's nominee Senator Edgar Brown. Without a Republican option for voters, and with the backing of the Governor, he beat Brown by 63 to 37 per cent.



* In 1960, President John F Kennedy managed to win two presidential primaries with write-in votes. In a speech, Kennedy congratulated voters in Pennsylvania, where he said "more Democrats took the trouble to write in a candidate's name than ever before".



* Despite no organised campaign for a presidential or vice-presidential run, General Colin Powell, George Bush's long-time Secretary of State, received more than 6,000 Republican write-in votes in New Hampshire's presidential primary in 1996.

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