Republican incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski and her likely Democratic Party challenger, former Gov. Tony Knowles, recently kicked off their campaigns for the U.S. Senate, including visits to the Kenai Peninsula in search of voter support.
Both must clear the hurdle of the August primary, but Murkowski's incumbency and Knowles' political history and name recognition make them the likely primary winners.
Until Wednesday, only Jim Dore, a Republican from Anchorage, and Don R. Wright, a Democrat from Fairbanks, were listed as candidates with the Alaska Division of Elections as possible primary challengers. On Wednesday, former state Senate President Mike Miller of North Pole announced his intention to run against Murkowski in the August Republican primary.
Murkowski was appointed to her seat in the U.S. Senate by her father, Gov. Frank Murkowski, when be became governor in 2002. Her appointment is likely to be a campaign issue.
She serves on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, chairs its subcommittee on water and power, and serves on its subcommittees on energy, and public lands and forests. Murkowski was a member of the Alaska House of Representatives from 1999 until her appointment in December 2002.
Energy supply is a top concern, Murkowski said in a March 24 press release in which she reiterated her support for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
"We need to be more energy secure, and we need to do that through our own domestic reserves," she said. "We cannot totally eliminate our dependence on foreign oil, but we can certainly work to reduce it."
More recently, Murkowski noted April 5 that the U.S. Senate leadership had added financial incentives for a natural gas pipeline to the pending Foreign Sales Corporation-Extraterritorial Income jobs bill pending in the Senate. Those included a tax credits and tax reductions seen to reduce pipeline construction costs, accelerate depreciation and protect pipeline investors from steep drops in gas prices.
"This is just the latest attempt to push major energy legislation through the U.S. Senate," she said in an April 5 press release. "Given our shortage of natural gas, the high prices of gasoline, there is no question that we need passage quickly of an energy plan to meet this nation's need for more energy."
She also supports "reasonable timber harvest" in Southeast Alaska to restore lost timber-industry jobs and has promised to fight for improvements in Alaska fishing and tourism industries.
Murkowski formally kicked off her campaign for the U.S. Senate on Monday with events in Fairbanks and Nome. That was followed on Tuesday morning with an appearance in Barrow and another in Anchorage that evening.
Tim Sullivan, Murkowski's statewide campaign coordinator, said the senator's trip to the Soldotna would launch her campaign effort on the Kenai Peninsula. Murkowski was to speak at the Soldotna Sports Center on Wednesday, before heading north for a campaign stop in Palmer.
"She will be focusing on the differences between her and Tony Knowles and will be answering questions during the press availability afterward," Sullivan said.
Issues of interest to constituents during meetings with Murkowski this year have run the gamut from local to national concerns, Sullivan said.
"Absolutely, we're hearing both," Sullivan said. "People are asking about budget issues, Iraq, the natural gas pipeline, the No Child Left Behind law. Perhaps the two biggest issues, however, are jobs and education."
Earlier this year, Murkowski said the goals of the federal No Child Left Behind law were laudable, but some of its requirements might be tough to meet in Alaska. She has said that "one-size-fits-all" federal acts don't always work.
In August, it was determined that 282 Alaska schools had not made adequate yearly progress under federal standards. Some 51 schools failed only because the required 95 percent of students had not been present to take the test. Murkowski has said she would be willing to introduce legislation to change provisions in the act.
Last May, Murkowski escorted Education Secretary Rod Paige on a tour of rural Alaska schools to see the effect the No Child Left Behind act could have at some 506 schools across the state. Paige later said he was not prepared for the conditions he saw in western Alaska. Murkowski has said she believes Paige is willing to work with Alaska to make the law work here.
Friday, Murkowski got a boost from Vice President Dick Cheney at a fund-raiser in Anchorage. Cheney made a brief stopover in Anchorage on his way to Asia.
Knowles visited Soldotna and Homer on Saturday, speaking on a variety of issues including education, No Child Left Behind and coal-bed methane development.
"Tony's been traveling, doing community events like town hall meetings," said Matt McKenna, Knowles' communications director. "These aren't fund-raisers, not political rallies, just a time for Alaskans to ask Tony questions and hear how he stands on issues."
Knowles has said Alaska schools are facing a crisis created by the federal government. In an address March 4, he said, "The No Child Left Behind law has put the federal government in charge of our schools. The first and most important reform is to bring back control of our schools to the parents, teachers, students and people of Alaska."
Quoting a PTA representative from Anchorage, Knowles said the law was "punitive to schools, degrading to teachers and putting undue stress on kids who are constantly preparing for standardized tests."
He called the act intrusive and said the federal rules did not reflect classroom realities.
Pointing back to the Quality Schools Initiative launched in the late 1990s following a 1996 national education summit, Knowles said under that program Alaska schools had raised standards and assessments for students and teachers, improved test scores, measured progress and made major investments in schools.
"We were making great progress under Alaska's Quality Schools Initiative. With the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Washington has turned our dream into a nightmare. This federal law may be full of good intentions, but it's a disaster for Alaska," he said.
On coal-bed methane development, an important issue both in the Matanuska Valley and on the lower Kenai Peninsula, Knowles has called for a state buyback of coal-bed methane leases. He also has called for a federal energy bill that protects personal property rights and local zoning laws.
The proposed federal energy bill would extend a tax credit to stimulate development of unconventional fuels, such as coal-bed methane. Knowles said no tax credit should be extended without the company having a "willing seller agreement to the surface rights and demonstrating that they're respecting local zoning laws."
Knowles has announced his support for the Alaska Property Owners Bill of Rights, a grass-roots measure meant to bolster the rights of surface owners.
Knowles also has criticized Murkowski for what he said was her lack of action on coal-bed methane issues, noting the $2 billion subsidy for the coal industry, including coal-bed methane developers, in the proposed energy bill. He has reportedly urged Murkowski to try to change the Bush administration's opposition to wellhead incentives needed to launch an Alaska natural gas pipeline project.
On other issues, Knowles has indicated recently that he backs community-fishing quotas in the Gulf of Alaska, which are part of a fishery rationalization plan being considered by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, and he continues his support of allowing Alaskans to vote on a rural subsistence preference.
McKenna said crowds have been larger than expected for this early in the campaign. Knowles drew about 100 in Soldotna and around 150 in Homer, he said. Audiences seemed interested in both local and national issues.
"More than anything, people are just hungry for change and more than that, want a voice in that change," McKenna said. "Alaskans are excited and energized about having a voice in how our senator is chosen."
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