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Wednesday, August 27, 2008 - Page updated at 06:20 PM

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Incumbents show vulnerability in Alaska primary

Alaska's Republican old guard talked tough Wednesday after a bruising primary, sounding confident they can prevail in the November general election despite criminal probes.

Associated Press Writer

ANCHORAGE, Alaska —

Alaska's Republican old guard talked tough Wednesday after a bruising primary, sounding confident they can prevail in the November general election despite criminal probes.

U.S. Rep. Don Young, under federal investigation for ties to a corrupt Alaska businessman, was locked in a virtual dead heat with Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell for Alaska's sole House seat, which Young has held for 35 years.

Sen. Ted Stevens, the Senate's longest-serving Republican, breezed to a primary win Tuesday, gaining 63 percent of the vote against six GOP challengers. But 33,000 GOP primary voters went against him, more than four times the number that did so in his last primary in 2002.

Two formidable opponents still stand in the way of Stevens' seventh full term: federal prosecutors who next month will try to prove he's a felon, and the energetic mayor of Anchorage, Mark Begich, a Democrat receiving strong national party support.

For more than three decades, Young and Stevens have won re-election with a simple strategy: strong support for developing natural resources combined with bringing in federal money to build up Alaska infrastructure.

University of Alaska Anchorage history professor Stephen Haycox said Wednesday the closeness of Young's race may reflect the difference in attitude toward him and Stevens. Alaskans' attitude toward the 84-year-old senator has run toward the tragic.

"I don't think it runs to resentment or outrage," he said.

Haycox said that Young's lack of transparency in spending more than $1 million in campaign money on legal fees before a possible indictment shows that "he seems to be uncowed and unapologetic about anything that is happening."

Young trailed Parnell for most of election night, but with 99 percent of Alaska precincts reporting he was ahead by 152 votes, 42,539 to 42,387.

The race remains too close to call. Young, 74, claimed Wednesday that he will prevail once all absentee votes have been counted.

"I'm confident the final results will give us a primary victory and we can move on to the general election," Young said.

Division of Elections officials do not have a firm count on the number of returned mail ballots and said the next tally of absentee and questioned ballots will be in nine days, on Sept. 5.

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Stevens, indicted on charges that he failed to report more than $250,000 in home renovations and other gifts from a wealthy Anchorage patron, says he will be exonerated. Resignation is not an option, he said.

"That will never happen, ever," Stevens said. "I'm not stepping down. I'm going to run through and win this election."

Stevens signaled that he will paint Begich as a tool of the influences he has vilified for nearly 40 years - liberals, Lower 48 outsiders, and "extreme environmentalists."

"We have already seen attempts to buy this Senate seat by outsiders who do not represent the best interest of Alaska," Stevens said.

Alan Boraas, a professor of anthropology and Kenai Peninsula Community College, said the traditional message of Stevens and Young still resonates with Alaskans.

"They've staked their careers on providing for people in communities through earmarks and other says," Boraas said. "That's created a lot of obligations, particularly in the construction industry and industry that relies on buildings and facilities and roads and whatever it might be. They're sort of collecting those chips now, at least Sen. Stevens is."

Stevens said he will fight to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to petroleum drilling, an issue routinely rejected by Congress and opposed by likely presidential nominees John McCain and Barack Obama.

Virtually no Alaska elected official opposes drilling, but Stevens painted Begich as soft on the issue.

"On energy, Alaskans know that I will fight every day to open ANWR, while Mark tells his liberal friends that he is 'carefully cautious' about drilling and only wants move forward 'when the environment is right,'" he said. "Now is the time to open ANWR, and Alaskans will need someone with experience to get that job done."

Begich and the Democratic nominee for U.S. House, former state Rep. Ethan Berkowitz, have refused to play the scandal card in their appeal to voters.

Young called Berkowitz "a very talented individual, very qualified." Voters must decide, he said, between a brand new freshman and a veteran who has delivered and can continue to do so.

"This is going to be a battle between a younger person, not quite as mature as I am, not as experienced as I am, does have talent. Do they want to do that replacement at this period of time?"

Begich on Wednesday would not even suggest that Stevens should resign if he's convicted next month.

"I'm not going to get into the hypothetical," Begich said.

"What people want to talk about are issues of energy, of health care and of taxes," he said. "That's where I'm going to go."

---

Associated Press writer Steve Quinn contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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