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Democrats Waiting on Gov. Knowles

In Alaska, where a newly appointed Republican Senator weighed down by charges of nepotism must face the voters next year, the Democrats’ chances of capturing the seat can be summed up in two words: Tony Knowles.

If the former two-term governor decides to run for the Senate in 2004, then the Democrats have an excellent shot. If he doesn’t, then newly minted Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) — or whoever emerges from what could be a rough Republican primary — will be heavily favored.

It’s as simple as that.

But divining Knowles’ intentions is anything but simple. And curiously enough, that’s just fine with state and national Democrats who, with a two-seat Senate deficit and few opportunities for gains next year, are desperate to win Alaska. They are comforted simply knowing he hasn’t said no yet.

“He is still exploring the idea — he has not discarded it,” said Tammy Troyer, executive director of the Alaska Democratic Party, one of a handful of state party leaders Knowles met with two weeks ago.

In an e-mail sent to Roll Call Friday evening, Knowles said there is not much he can add to the speculation right now.

“I am wrapped up trying to transition back to ‘civilian’ life,” he wrote.

But one knowledgeable national Democratic operative said Knowles is trying to figure out how a campaign for federal office would differ from a campaign for state office (he also served as mayor of Anchorage). He is also trying to think about the logistics of a Senate campaign, like how much money he’d need to raise and whether he has the stomach for it, the operative said.

Others who know the 60-year-old former governor have suggested that he is weighing whether he wants to get back into the political fray so soon after leaving office last December. Another factor is his family, though his children are grown.

Joe Slade White, a Washington, D.C.-based media consultant who has worked on Knowles’ gubernatorial campaigns, said he has been putting off asking his former client about his plans for 2004 because he figures Knowles needs more time to decide.

“What I like about Tony is that it will be a deeply personal decision,” White said. “He’s got great instincts about whether or not he ought to run.”

David Dittman, a Republican pollster in Alaska, said there is no reason for Knowles to announce his decision early.

“He doesn’t have to do much to stay in the picture,” Dittman said. “He’ll be mentioned even if he isn’t making the effort.”

Despite Knowles’ superstar status in Democratic circles, his victory would be no sure thing should he decide to run.

In a strong Republican state, Knowles has never won by big margins, and that was also the case during his races for mayor of the state’s largest city. He lost his first run for governor in 1990, and won his first term in 1994 by just 536 votes. Against a fractured field in 1998, Knowles won 51 percent of the vote to capture a second term.

Knowles has succeeded in Alaska by running and governing as a moderate. He walked a fine line between the resource industries that dominate the state economy and environmental groups. His business background as an Anchorage restaurateur has also been a plus.

Just how strong Murkowski will be remains to be seen.

Appointed to the job in late December by her father, Gov. Frank Murkowski (R) — himself a 22-year Senate veteran who had just given up the job — Lisa Murkowski was immediately hit by charges that her appointment was based on family connections rather than merit. Though she had served in the state House for four years and was about to assume the position of Majority Leader, some GOP insiders grumbled that a few of the two dozen people on her father’s list of potential successors were more qualified. Other Republicans complained about Lisa Murkowski’s relatively moderate politics — she supports abortion rights in certain circumstances and did not rule out voting for state tax increases.

Indeed, if the 45-year-old rookie is challenged in a primary next year, it is likely to come from the party’s conservative wing — or from one of the runners-up on Frank Murkowski’s finalists’ list. The two most prominent names mentioned at the moment are Alaska Railroad Board Chairman Johne Binkley and former Anchorage Mayor Rick Mystrom, who will probably run to get his old job back this year.

Despite the obvious dangers facing Murkowski next year — even without the nepotism charge, appointed Senators are often vulnerable the first time they put themselves before the voters — strategists in both parties say she could wind up being formidable.

“She’ll be pretty solidly supported in a year or so, even among the critics,” predicted Dittman, who has worked for Frank Murkowski in the past.

White said Democrats have to be careful about characterizing Lisa Murkowski as “too tempting right now.”

Democrats have a pretty short bench to call upon if Knowles decides against running. But some Democrats hopefully note that a quality candidate could be lured into the 2004 Senate election to raise his or her profile for a future race.

Frank Murkowski, after all, is 69. So is Rep. Don Young

(R-Alaska). And Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) is 79. They’ve all got to retire someday.

Insiders believe that state House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz is the likeliest Democrat to run for Senate if Knowles doesn’t. Others expect former Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer, who took 41 percent of the vote in the gubernatorial race last November, to run for statewide office again.

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