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Voters Will Sit in Judgment After Jury Has Say

From the witness stand, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) sat above a sea of dark suits in the federal courtroom last Friday. In front of a jury, he read out loud a handwritten note that he had sent in October 2002 to Bill Allen, CEO of the oil services company VECO.

“Thank you for all the work on the Chalet,” Stevens read aloud. “You owe me a bill — remember Torricelli, my friend. Friendship is one thing — complying with these ethics rules entirely different.”

The note, admitted as evidence in Stevens’ trial, referred to former New Jersey Sen. Robert Torricelli (D), who abruptly abandoned his re-election bid in 2002 following a campaign finance scandal.

Theoretically, Stevens could be in much greater trouble if Justice Department attorneys succeed in convicting the Senator for lying on his financial disclosure forms. The government alleges that Stevens accepted gifts from VECO, mostly in the form of home improvements to his Girdwood, Alaska, house — or as it’s called in the courtroom, “The Chalet.”

What’s more, Toricelli never had to stand trial and run for re-election at the same time. Back in Alaska, an absent Stevens is campaigning for re-election against the most popular Democrat in the state, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich. But as his well-publicized trial comes to a close less than two weeks before Election Day, it’s unclear just how much damage — if any — the trial has caused Stevens’ re-election.

Whether there is a conviction this week, even some Democrats are unsure if the trial will hurt Stevens in the end.

“I don’t know so far that the trial is hurting him that much,” said state Rep. Les Gara (D), who is based in Anchorage.

Gara recalled how one of Stevens’ GOP primary opponents alleged corruption in a million-dollar ad buy in August, only to watch Stevens keep his lead in the polls because the ads, according to some, created sympathy for the 84-year-old Senator.

“I do think some of the press coverage has bought into the idea that Ted, instead of possibly being a felon, some voters are buying into the idea that he’s a victim,” Gara said. “And that’s curious to me.”

Some polling data show Stevens has become more popular since the Justice Department handed down its seven-count indictment against him in July. A Research 2000 poll of 600 likely voters in the state showed Stevens increased his favorable rating from 36 percent in July to 44 percent in the most recent poll, conducted Oct. 14-16.

Begich’s lead over Stevens has also diminished in many public polls in recent months. In the same October Research 2000 survey, paid for by the liberal Web site Daily Kos, Begich led Stevens 48 percent to 46 percent — within the poll’s margin of error.

And while Stevens is 3,300 miles away in the Capitol, his campaign remains optimistic at home. Stevens pollster David Dittman said the trial has been “rehabilitative” for Stevens, who for the past two years was not allowed to discuss the investigation or allegations against him.

“For more than two years, he couldn’t respond and didn’t respond,” Dittman said. “And now he’s getting, literally, his day in court. I think he relished the chance to be on the stand himself.”

Republicans hoped timing of the trial, which is expected to go to the jury today, exactly two weeks before Election Day, will propel Stevens to re-election. However instead of news stories about lavish renovations to “The Chalet,” both Democrats and Republicans said headlines have shown a Justice Department prosecution with a thin case.

Kim Skipper, a district chairman for the Alaska Republican Party from Eagle River, said she believed the Justice Department attorneys did not really have a firm case against Stevens to start with, and that’s why the trial has “made such a mess.”

“I think the prosecution has done enough damage to the case, where the overall theme of what’s been going on seems like a witch hunt,” Skipper said. “When the prosecution has been chided by the judge on many occasions, it makes the Alaskans who are looking at this to go, ‘You know, something else is behind this case.’”

Stevens and his team of attorneys felt confident enough to put the Senator on the stand as their final witness. Known for his short temper, there was a risk that Stevens could respond to the prosecution with the wrath of the Incredible Hulk superhero that has become part of his cult of personality in the Senate — and who appears on his favorite tie.

Dittman, who has known Stevens for more than four decades, recalled how his early Senate opponents in 1970 and 1972 used to call him Teddy to his face to get a rise out of him.

“He didn’t rise to it at all,” Dittman said. “He knew that they were baiting him. So he’s not going to do anything publicly to discredit him[self] at all.”

State Sen. Bill Wielechowski (D) said Alaskans are giving Stevens the benefit of the doubt at this point with recent news headlines about an angry Judge Emmet Sullivan admonishing the prosecution, and the Senator’s defense asking to dismiss the case.

“I don’t know how much impact the verdict is going to have on the electorate. He was indicted, and his poll numbers actually went up,” Wielechowski said. “I actually don’t know how much impact a conviction will have in Alaska.”

Right now, Wielechowski said, Alaskans appear to be more concerned with the candidacy of a Republican who was 4 years old when Stevens entered the Senate in 1968: Gov. Sarah Palin, the GOP vice presidential nominee.

“The whole Palin vice presidency has so overwhelmed everything else in this state, that this trial has just taken a complete backseat to the whole Sarah Palin vice presidency pick,” he said.

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