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Originally published September 21, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 22, 2008 at 11:20 AM

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Palin's stardom gives Stevens boost

Despite facing an upcoming criminal trial, 84-year-old Sen. Ted Stevens is gaining ground in his effort to win re-election to a sixth term in the U.S. Senate.

Seattle Times staff reporter

The 84-year-old Sen. Ted Stevens is a charter member in the good-old-boy network of Alaska politics. That might appear a liability in this campaign season, when Gov. Sarah Palin has rocketed to stardom as a Republican vice-presidential candidate who bucked the state's chummy political establishment.

In his four decades in the U.S. Senate, Stevens forged friendships with much of the state's business and political elite. This week, one of those friendships will be the focus of Stevens' criminal trial, where federal prosecutors will seek a seven-count conviction on charges that the senator failed to report more than $250,000 in free labor and gifts from a former oil executive who once ranked as one of Alaska's most formidable power brokers.

Yet Stevens, who denies the charges, still wields significant political clout, trouncing six opponents in an August Republican primary. Since then, even as his trial approaches, several polls indicate Stevens has gained substantial ground on his Democratic opponent, 46-year-old Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, and the two men now appear to be in a tight race.

Political observers in Alaska say that Stevens has received a significant boost from an unexpected source — Palin — whose presence on the national ticket appears to be energizing the state's conservative base for a strong showing at the polls in November.

Though Stevens' relationship with Palin has often been strained, the senator in recent weeks has endorsed the governor's vice-presidential bid, even as she has shied away from a reciprocal endorsement.

Alaska pollster Ivan Moore said he doubts that Stevens will prevail in November if he's found guilty. Other political observers believe Stevens, even if convicted on all seven felony counts, could be pulled along by Palin, and still be re-elected.

"It's one of the fabulous ironies of all this," said Donald Mitchell, an Anchorage attorney and author of two historical books on Alaska. "With Palin on the ticket, I think it will bring out every Republican and every right-of-center independent voter. It's going to be close, but I'm now betting on Ted."

The Begich campaign concurs that Palin's presence on the ticket is a wild card in the race.

"We would agree that she [Palin] has energized the campaign in Alaska as she has everywhere else," said Judy Hasquet, a spokeswoman for the Begich campaign. "But if you see her as the anti-corruption candidate, then you've also got to vote for Begich because they both represent a new generation of Alaska politicians."

If Stevens is convicted, then re-elected, the Senate will decide his fate. The chamber has no constitutional prohibition against a felon serving out a term, and probably would allow Stevens to pursue appeals before deciding whether to take a fitness-to-serve vote, according to Donald Ritchie, associate historian at the U.S. Senate.

As the longest-serving Republican in the Senate, Stevens has had a big impact in Washington state, authoring federal fishery legislation that triggered a boom in Seattle fishing fleets, championing Boeing and supporting an oil industry that has many ties to Puget Sound.

In his home state, he has helped craft Native land claims and other legislation that has played a big role in defining modern Alaska. He also has secured billions of dollars in federal aid to develop the state.

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"I think people [here] see Stevens is being much larger than the good ol' boy network," said David Dittman, an Alaska pollster working for the Stevens campaign. "Of course, he knows those people because they are the ones that make Alaska run."

For Alaska, though, this is a political season without precedent. Stevens' campaign must deal with the headlines about his upcoming trial.

Some of his work — such as his efforts to secure federal funding for a $223 million bridge connecting Ketchikan to an island airport, the so-called Bridge to Nowhere — is under assault within his party.

At the Republican National Convention, Palin derided the bridge as an abuse of the earmark process as she touted the merits of McCain, a longtime Stevens rival.

Stevens skipped the convention to spend the first week in September stumping for votes in Alaska. In Anchorage, he checked into his campaign headquarters in a midtown strip mall, where supporters have posted a huge black-and-white photo of a youthful Stevens, clad in a No. 12 jersey and kneeling in a football stance.

"Will you join the fight for Alaska's future?" Stevens asks in his campaign handout.

First, Stevens must focus on his courtroom battle. The trial is expected to delve into the senator's relationship with felon Bill Allen, former chairman of oil-field supply company VECO (now owned by CH2M Hill). Allen — in a 2007 plea agreement — admitted bribing several state legislators in exchange for votes favoring the oil industry.

Allen once was a major GOP fundraiser and a friend of the senator's. The two men shared ownership in a racehorse. And Allen also sometimes used the senator's house in Girdwood, a town nestled in mountains south of Anchorage, as an occasional getaway, according to Clem Tillion, a former state legislator and longtime Stevens friend.

Federal prosecutors allege that VECO provided more than $250,000 in free remodeling to the Girdwood house, a figure disputed by Stevens' attorneys.

The government alleges that the remodeling work was part of a broader pattern of gift-giving that included a car swap that gave Stevens' family a cut-rate deal on a new Land Rover, a massage chair and a stained-glass window, according to court documents filed by prosecutors.

Stevens is charged with seven counts of failing to report Allen's gifts on annual Senate disclosure forms during a seven-year period. In a statement released this summer, Stevens said, "I have never knowingly submitted a false disclosure form required by law as a U.S. Senator."

Allen is expected to be the star witness for the prosecution, and Stevens' attorneys, in court filings, have indicated they will try to discredit him.

Stevens' attorneys have requested that the federal government hand over records of Anchorage police investigations of Allen. Police in the past year have launched two separate investigations into allegations that Allen abused underage women, the department told AlaskaDispatch.com, a news Web site. An attorney for Allen says those allegations are false.

The trial is expected to take about a month, ending weeks before the Nov. 4 election. Stevens will be stuck in court on weekdays, but is expected to shuttle home several times in October in search of votes.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

Tony Hopfinger, editor of AlaskaDispatch.com, contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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