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GOP’s Northern Star on the Rise

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski may be a rising Republican powerhouse — and she hasn’t even finished her first full term.

Just in the past month, Murkowski was named counsel to the Minority Leader, given a coveted spot on the Appropriations Committee and elevated to the ranking member slot on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

“I’m hard-pressed to think of any Member who has risen as quickly as she has,” Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said.

Murkowski, 51, has been swept up in a party shuffle that has created the perfect storm for her ascent to leadership. With McConnell’s counsel appointment last week, Murkowski was able to achieve in six years what many Members spend several terms working for.

“There were a series of events that moved me much quicker than I, or probably anybody else, had anticipated,” said Murkowski, one of just four GOP female Senators and now senior Senator from Alaska.

These events include the ouster of veteran Sen. Ted Stevens (R), who in the face of a corruption scandal lost his re-election bid in November, and the resignation of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas) as the Republican Conference’s policy chairwoman. The void left by these two GOP favorites provided an opening for Murkowski.

Hutchison “stepped down from her leadership position, so you don’t really have that female voice coming out of our leadership at this time. So again I think I lend that to the meetings that I’m a party to,” Murkowski said. She predicts she will be viewed as a role model for future Republican women.

Then there’s “Uncle Ted.” Murkowski’s close relationship with the longest-serving Republican Senator no doubt helped her gain credibility early on in her career. During high school, she interned in his office and upon her arrival in Congress in 2003, Stevens took her under his wing.

“He treated me so much as his equal,” Murkowski said of the man she calls a friend and mentor. “He’d say, ‘You know your vote is just as good as mine.’ He allowed me the freedom to kind of grow on my own, and I was able to observe him and learn from a leader.”

Murkowski took over Stevens’ seat on the Appropriations Committee. She said she thinks her early success in the Senate is due in part to Stevens. “When you have your colleagues see a very senior Member show the kind of respect that Ted showed for me, I think that that did help me.”

McConnell also drew the parallel between the two Alaskans, saying: “Clearly, Lisa is the new powerhouse in Alaska. She will fill the vacuum left by Ted.” Though when asked if her appointment to his leadership team was a nod to Stevens, McConnell was quick to say, “No, this is about Sen. Murkowski and her intelligence.”

This isn’t the first time the GOP has had an eye on Murkowski for a seat at the leadership table. In November, Murkowski’s name was floated as a possible contender for the job of vice chairwoman of the Republican Conference. She considered it, but ultimately passed on making a run, saying she wanted to spend time with her family, which includes her two sons, Nic and Matt, who attend high school on Capitol Hill.

“I recognize that I’ve only got a half a year with my senior and I’ve only got two years with my sophomore,” she said. “So I decided, you know what, I’m going to make sure that I have as much family time as I can allow given the parameters of this job, and I’m going to wait on leadership.”

Still, Murkowski wanted to lend her knowledge and experience to the Republican Conference. That opportunity came when McConnell asked her to act as one of three of his counsels. In this position, Murkowski will join an elite team of advisers that includes Sens. Judd Gregg (N.H.), one of the chamber’s most respected fiscal hawks, and Bob Bennett (Utah), McConnell’s closest confidant.

“I accepted with an eagerness because I want to be able to contribute and to be in this position and help in this way,” she said. “It’s something I can do to help my Conference while at the same time giving my family the time they need so much.”

Murkowski also is in the unique position of now being the only Republican Senator on the West Coast. McConnell says this was a key factor in his decision to bring her into his inner circle.

“The region people typically identify us with is the South,” the Minority Leader said. “I think she brings a Western perspective in addition to being sensitive to women’s issues.”

“I hope she will at some point” run for leadership, McConnell added, “but I decided it was important for her to be on the team whether she ran for it or not.”

Murkowski plans to run for an elected leadership post once her sons graduate high school and she has “unlimited time” to devote to the Senate. Of course, this plan hinges on her re-election in 2010.

It remains unclear whether Murkowski will have a real race on her hands, a topic her office refuses to discuss. Alaska Democrats have a shallow bench for statewide candidates, although state Sen. Hollis French (D) and former state House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz (D) have been mentioned as possible candidates. Berkowitz lost a statewide bid in 2008 against embattled Rep. Don Young (R) and is more likely to challenge the longtime Congressman again in 2010.

Alaska’s senior Senator might have to look out on her right instead. Some Washington, D.C., insiders have floated Gov. Sarah Palin’s (R) name as a potential challenger, although the governor’s aides deny she has any interest in taking on Murkowski.

For now, Murkowski is focused on adjusting to her new role and keeping an eye on the future when her boys head to college. One partner who has helped her balance being a mother and a leader in the Senate is her husband, Verne, who stays at home with the kids.

“In a way, I’m able to do it all,” Murkowski said. Living on Capitol Hill allows her to go home for family dinners and return to the floor for votes. “We recognize that it’s not a perfect world, but you’ve got to make it work, and we’ve made it a priority that we’re going to have dinner.”

Finding time for politics and a family is nothing new to Murkowski, the daughter of former Alaska Sen. and Gov. Frank Murkowski (R). Growing up, she was often surround by politician friends of her parents. One of her earliest memories is of a group of men arguing around a bonfire on the beach about politics.

“I was captivated by it, just captivated by the conversations,” she said. “I don’t remember what the political issues were, but they just stood around that fire forever just arguing.”

In 1970, when Murkowski was in eighth grade, her father ran for the House of Representatives and enlisted his six children in the campaign. The basement of the Murkowski home in Juneau was turned into a post office where the children helped with campaign mailings.

“We had a pretty sophisticated little operation,” Murkowski said. “All of the kids in the neighborhood would want to come over and help because it was so much fun. That was my first campaign effort.”

Frank Murkowski lost that race to Nick Begich, the father of Sen. Mark Begich (D), who recently replaced Stevens as the junior Senator from Alaska.

“You know it’s a pretty small world,” Murkowski said. “His dad beat my dad and now the two of us are working here in Washington, D.C., together.”

Having grown up around politicians may have helped this very new senior Senator feel at home in her new roles.

“In the two leadership meetings that I’ve participated in thus far, my comments have been welcomed as evenly as that of our Whip or any of the other elected leaders,” she said. “So I’m quite comfortable.”

Shira Toeplitz contributed to this report.

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