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Stevens Keeping the Faith

Foes Smell Blood on Primary Day

GIRDWOOD, Alaska — Patrick Notar sits at the Chair Five restaurant bar sipping a margarita on a recent late Sunday afternoon.

A four-year resident of this small town, Notar is familiar with the controversy surrounding the town’s most famous resident, Sen. Ted Stevens (R). Already in the midst of a tough re-election battle, the seven-term Senator was indicted on seven counts in July for not disclosing gifts that included improvements to his Girdwood home.

“I don’t care,” Notar says. “How much did the FBI and Department of Justice spend to bring up 40 FBI agents into Girdwood to investigate him? … That’s what bothers people up here. The government blows our money to go investigate somebody with our money.”

Notar, 38, said he’s not completely sure who he’s voting for in November — the GOP nominee, likely Stevens, or Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich (D) — but he won’t be watching Stevens’ trial to figure it out.

Stevens will get the first clue about his political fate tonight, when he is expected to defeat several challengers in the GOP primary. His legal fate will begin to take shape in late September, when his trial is expected to begin in Washington, D.C.

“If we lose Ted Stevens, we go to the bottom of the totem pole,” Notar said. “Alaska is not liked by the national [government]. We’re not liked by the Congress.”

In the small ski bum town just south of Anchorage, it’s hard to find a soul who doesn’t know Stevens personally. Notar and his drinking partner saw Stevens, 84, taking a stroll earlier that day.

In fact, Stevens opened his Girdwood home the previous weekend to friends and neighbors to show that he had nothing to hide when it came to the improvements to his house made by the VECO oil services company — whose officials have been accused of bribing state officials.

“He’s a good guy, but I think he’s older and people have manipulated him,” Notar said. “My father is 79 years old, and we don’t trust him with the clicker to the TV.”

Faith in Himself and Faith in God

Democrats have salivated at the opportunity to knock out one of the most powerful men in the Senate. After a long courtship by Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and conversations with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Begich announced his candidacy in April.

And with the cloud of a federal investigation looming, Stevens attracted seven Republican primary challengers, including two businessmen who have each put at least $750,000 of their own funds into the race.

In an interview in his Anchorage campaign office, Stevens was asked what he would do if he lost the seat he has held for 40 years.

“You know, I don’t even contemplate that,” he said. “Do you understand faith in yourself and faith in God? If you understand faith, then you understand why I don’t even think about that.”

Stevens paused, and then expressed his certainty with sincerity.

“It’s not on my screen to lose — the case in court or the general election,” he said. “We’re committed to win both and we will. We have faith that we will win both.”

In the Last Frontier, it might be nearly impossible to find a resident who has not come in contact with Stevens or one of the government-funded projects he’s brought home. The scenic highway from Anchorage to Seward, which passes by Girdwood, is peppered with Ted Stevens-for-Senate billboards.

“You know what every Alaskan tells me?” Stevens asked. “Follow me and listen to what they say. ‘I’m saying a prayer for you.’ You don’t hear that in New York. You don’t hear that in California. But here, everyone I know, says, ‘Ted, I’m saying a prayer for you.’ You don’t understand our society. People on the outside don’t understand us.”

But with indictments hanging around his neck and a top-tier Democratic challenger, Stevens is in the toughest race of his career. Polls show him ahead in today’s primary, but losing by double digits to Begich in the general election.

And assuming he wins the primary, the senior Senator will be standing trial in Washington, D.C., during prime campaign time, with potentially damaging headlines reaching home before he can get there.

But in August in Alaska, Stevens was in full campaign mode, including advertisements, fundraising and radio. A feisty Stevens personally invited Schumer to Alaska to visit his staff there and to show Alaska residents that outsiders were running the Democrats’ campaigns in the state.

“They don’t even know the names of the places they’re talking about when they write their ads,” he quipped. “We don’t worry about them. People know what a Schumer ad is.”

‘That’s What I Love About Campaigning’

At a Saturday afternoon barbecue in Wasilla, Begich’s vocal young son ran circles around his father’s supporters. One in a series of the campaign’s “Begich barbecues” across the state, the Anchorage mayor spoke to the crowd, answered questions and signed autographs.

At the picturesque lakeside pavilion, Tamiah Liebersbach, an 18-year-old from Chugiak, asked Begich to sign her campaign poster.

“Mayor Begich or Mark Begich?” Begich asked, before he put pen to paper.

“How about Senator Begich?” Liebersbach requested.

“That’s bad luck,” Begich declined.

Perhaps because Alaska is so dependent on federal funds, the affable mayor fielded questions and comments specific to Alaska — very few people asked about national issues — from the status of the gas pipeline to fishing licenses.

In his speech to supporters, Begich said that’s one of the things he loves about Alaska voters.

“That’s what I love about campaigning, because people are not afraid to tell me what you think,” he told the crowd. “And the one thing I think I will ask you … is that you keep doing that to me when I am serving in the U.S. Senate.”

Begich barely mentioned Stevens, let alone the upcoming trial, in his stump speech — though there’s no doubt it works to his advantage that Stevens will be on trial in Washington while he plans to stay mostly in Alaska, campaigning until November.

In an interview, Begich said the indictment has had little or no effect on the way he is campaigning for the seat. His speech, he said, “hasn’t changed from six weeks ago in the sense of how I treat Stevens. It’s the same speech: I respect his early years of service, but in the last few years, there’s been some questions that now people are asking.”

Meanwhile, 91-year-old Marge Stotts waited in line with her daughter for a hamburger. A former defense contractor from California, Stotts supports Begich for Senate because she thinks he’s done a good job as mayor.

But like Begich, Stotts is hesitant to say a bad word about Stevens.

“I think it’s sad that all this terrible stuff has happened,” Stotts said. “I know that he’s done a lot for Alaska. But you know you can do a lot without being corrupt.”

A Three-Hour Tour

A perennial thorn in both parties’ side, self-described muckraker Ray Metcalfe doesn’t just like to talk about corruption in Alaska: He prefers to show voters what he thinks is missing from news headlines. He’s also running in the Democratic primary for Senate against Begich.

On a recent Friday afternoon, Metcalfe took six residents and a couple of reporters on a three-hour bus tour of Anchorage real estate. From military housing to midtown skyscrapers, Metcalfe described how politicians — mostly Begich, but also Stevens — were allegedly involved in shady land deals across the state.

As a tour brochure, Metcalfe supplied two dozen pages of paperwork including land assessment values, news clippings and signed affidavits.

“Here we are in Alaska, about to elect a guy to replace the crook, who’s in bed with all the same people,” he said.

Meanwhile, on airwaves across the state, two Republican candidates are hitting Stevens hard for what they call “corruption.”

Businessman Vic Vickers (R), who moved to Alaska from Florida within the year, has put almost $1 million worth of advertisements into the GOP primary.

On a Saturday morning at the Anchorage outdoor market, an eccentric Vickers made his case to anyone who would stop by his booth. When asked how he amassed enough money to fund his own bid this year, he said he’s worked “every single day for 38 years” — and took out a calculator on his cell phone to show that it added up to “13,870 consecutive days that I’ve worked.”

“Taking back Alaska is taking it back from the oil companies and the corrupt politicians,” Vickers said.

Businessman David Cuddy (R) ran against Stevens in 1996, but he decided to make another mostly self-funded bid against the Senator this cycle. So far, however, public polls have showed that his campaign has failed to gain any traction — even after Stevens was indicted.

“I suspect I will win,” Cuddy said in an interview in his Anchorage campaign office last week. “Stevens is falling pretty rapidly. Our difficulty is that it was tough to run a real race until his indictments came down. So we have been on a hurry-up schedule for the past two weeks, cutting TV and radio spots.”

Cuddy said Republican strategist Bay Buchanan joined the campaign after the indictments, because he said in her opinion the primary became winnable at that point.

But for Cuddy and Vickers, it’s doubtful whether their money has been well-spent. Polls showed both trailing Stevens by at least 40 points with three weeks before today’s primary.

Lunch With Uncle Ted

Stevens shakes every hand twice — before and after lunch — at a weekday gathering geared to young professionals in Anchorage.

Wearing a large, oval “Alaska” belt buckle, the Senator launched into an occasional rambling history lesson from the podium. Most of all, he warned that he does not want to see Alaskans go through another energy crisis like this year.

“I fear this year,” Stevens said. “If you look at Nome a week ago last Monday, I was told a gallon of milk in Nome costs $17. Fuel in Wainwright costs $9.”

He fielded wonky questions from young Alaskans, such as why Congress will not fund more Coast Guard stations on the Bering Strait or why there has been more national attention about offshore drilling than there has been about drilling in Alaska’s North Slope.

He said he remembers a time when Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) voted with him for drilling in the North Slope, along with Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and former Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.).

“Conrad doesn’t vote with us,” he said. “Byrd doesn’t vote with us. Hollings is no longer with us.”

He said the state is entering a whole new “paradigm” of dealing with the federal government when it comes to funding projects and earmarks. With Alaska in surplus and the federal government in debt, it’s hard to get much sympathy from Members of Congress from the lower 48.

But it appears Stevens still has sympathy from his supporters.

Like Notar at the Girdwood bar, Steven Leathard, a 36-year-old consultant and registered independent who attended the luncheon, said he is another Alaska voter who will not be glued to Stevens’ trial in the coming months. Knowing that VECO employees were involved in the house job, Leathard said the legal proceedings won’t change his mind — or his vote.

“I believe firmly, down to my core, that the Senator probably didn’t know everything that was going on,” he said. “So that doesn’t really affect my opinion of him or affect my vote in any way.”

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