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Murkowski Strategy Includes Active Courtship of Anti-Palin Vote

Murkowski Strategy Includes Active Courtship of Anti-Palin Vote

By Scott Conroy - September 20, 2010


When Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski announced that she would mount a write-in campaign to attempt to hold onto her Senate seat on Friday night, the line that drew the most raucous cheers from her supporters on hand in Anchorage was her blunt dig at Sarah Palin over the former governor's decision to resign from office in the middle of her term.

"They tell me that this can't be done -- that this is a futile effort," Murkowski said. "Well, perhaps it's one time that they met one Republican woman who won't quit on Alaska."

Murkowksi has had a longstanding feud with Palin, and she delivered the line with overt personal relish. But Murkowski's direct shot at Alaska's most famous resident was more than just another attempt to publicly indulge a grudge.

In addition to the inherent challenges of mounting a successful write-in campaign, Murkowski's other burden is to figure out how to attract enough voters to prevail in a three-way race against Republican nominee Joe Miller, who defeated her in the GOP primary, and Democrat Scott McAdams.

A two-part centerpiece to Murkowski's general election strategy is to invoke the memory of the late Senator Ted Stevens -- who had been a Murkowski backer before he died in a plane crash in August and is widely revered across the political spectrum in Alaska -- while simultaneously attempting to coalesce the support of Alaskan voters who have unfavorable opinions of Palin.

Murkowski spokesperson Steve Wackowski noted in an interview that Murkowski did not join Palin in condemning Stevens and calling on him to resign his Senate seat after he was convicted on federal corruption charges in 2008 (the convictions were later voided after the prosecutor in the case was found to have committed gross misconduct).

"She was the only Alaskan politician who stood by Ted in his hour of need," Wackowski said. "And oh yeah, by the way, Sarah Palin did throw him under the bus. She was one of the first ones to do so."

Wackowski added that Murkowski's campaign was "an open tent" that was focused on winning over voters in the middle of the political spectrum, regardless of how they feel about Sarah Palin, but he quickly added another anti-Palin caveat.

"This is about Alaska, and no one can argue with the fact that Sarah Palin has moved on from Alaska and set her sights to the national stage, so you're going to see us talking about Alaska," Wackowski said.

Palin's esteem in her home state has indisputably declined since the heights it reached in early 2008, when she was considered the most popular governor in the country, but a statewide campaign that seeks to rally the forces against her is one that remains rife with risk.

Palin still enjoys wide approval among Alaskan Republicans and remains popular with many independents, as well. And Palin demonstrated that her home-state sway is still formidable when she helped propel Miller to victory with her endorsement in the GOP primary.

Still, Murkowski's general election bid is one that will rely heavily on motivating her voters to go to the polls to write in her name. The thunderous response to the Palin dig from her supporters in Anchorage on Friday served as a reminder that Palin's name has the potential to serve as a rallying cry for the former governor's detractors, just as it frequently inspires her most ardent supporters.

Murkowski will need only a plurality -- not necessarily a majority -- of votes in order to win, and her campaign is banking on her ability to attract anti-Palin voters by marginalizing McAdams, the Democrat in the race.

McAdams' spokesperson told Alaska station KTVA on Friday that a Murkowski write-in victory would be "statistically impossible," but the burden is now on McAdams to convince Democrats and independents to stick with him, rather than flocking to Murkowski, a moderate Republican who is much better known than McAdams.

Thus far, Murkowski has criticized McAdams for his inexperience, while carefully avoiding direct challenges to his political philosophy, presumably in order not to offend Democrats who might consider voting for her.

Though Murkowski's electoral success will rest largely on her ability to court Democrats and independents, her spokesperson shot down any speculation that she might caucus with the Democratic Party if she wins in November, as Republican turned independent Charlie Crist has been rumored to be considering in Florida.

"Senator Murkowski is a Republican," Wackowski said. "She has never and will never quit the party."

It is Miller who now enjoys her party establishment's support, but Murkowski is working to define him as a dangerous extremist, a tactic she failed to pursue forcefully during her primary battle.

"He is suggesting to us, in my opinion, and in the opinion of many, many Alaskans, some pretty radical things," Murkowski said of Miller in an appearance on CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday. "You know, we dump Social Security. No more Medicare. Let's get rid of the Department of Education. Elimination of all earmarks."

In addition to going on the attack against Miller, the Murkowski campaign has set to work in earnest to educate voters how to properly write in her name and fill in the circle beside it.

Her campaign's web site now greets visitors with instructions on how to complete the write-in process correctly and encourages Alaskans to vote early via absentee ballot.

Murkowski also hired a new campaign manager to implement her revised strategy after placing former campaign chief John Bitney in a different role.

Murkowski has been invited to three debates with Miller and McAdams, and though she has not yet formally accepted any of the invitations, Wackowski indicated an eagerness to get his candidate on stage with her opponents.

"We're gonna take them on when and wherever we can," he said.

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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