- The Washington Times - Monday, August 23, 2004

Alaskans will choose their candidates for the general election today, with incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski expected to win the Republican primary and face former Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles in November.

Polls show Mrs. Murkowski leading her Republican primary opponents by high double digits. Mr. Knowles is the only Senate candidate in the Democratic primary.

Mrs. Murkowski — who is married but goes by her maiden name — was appointed in 2002 by her father, Gov. Frank H. Murkowski, to serve out the Senate seat he vacated to pursue the governorship. Republicans hope a primary victory will dispel accusations of nepotism that have plagued her campaign.

“Once the primary is over, the Republican voters will have decided … and if they choose Murkowski, that will take care of a lot of the [nepotism] issue right there,” said Hans Kaiser, a Republican pollster with Oregon-based Moore Information.

The Republican Party has had a strong advantage in Alaska in recent elections, and though polls show Mrs. Murkowski in a statistical dead heat with Mr. Knowles in the November matchup, she is still the runaway favorite in the Republican primary today.

A poll released Aug. 3 showed Mrs. Murkowski with 63 percent of the primary votes and her closest competitor, former state Senate President Mike Miller, with 29 percent. The poll surveyed 505 likely voters and had a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.

“After the primary is over, the party and all the candidates will come together, and all of a sudden the dynamic has a whole new picture and it will be all of us against [Mr. Knowles],” Mr. Kaiser said.

In the poll, Mr. Knowles led Mrs. Murkowski 46 percent to 44 percent.

Mr. Knowles has a twofold problem in the state. He has never scored high numbers in statewide elections and there is skepticism about whether he will be able to persuade Senate Democrats to vote for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Drilling in ANWR — estimated to contain 16 billion barrels of oil — is overwhelmingly favored by Alaskans but opposed by environmentalists.

In 1994, Mr. Knowles won the governorship by slightly more than 500 votes, getting only 41 percent of the vote in a four-way contest. He was re-elected in 1998 with 50.8 percent of the vote, but only after the Republican candidate was forced out of the race owing to campaign-finance violations.

“He has never set the world on fire, but that is not to say he is not a likable guy or that people won’t vote for him,” Mr. Kaiser said.

Knowles campaign spokesman Bob King said the polls have shown the Democrat leading since early on in the primary election cycle, and that Mr. Knowles’ record of working with Democrats on Alaska’s issues will carry him to victory.

“He was successful in getting President Clinton to open the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska [for development] in 1998 and … some of the concerns of ANWR are similar to that issue, and he convinced the Clinton administration to lift the oil export ban,” Mr. King said.

But Mr. Kaiser said Mr. Knowles had six years to persuade President Clinton to allow drilling in ANWR with no success: “And I don’t see how he is going to convince liberal Democrats in Washington who are flat-out against it and John Kerry, who has fought against it forever.”

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