Alaska Republicans showed a unified front at this weekend's Alaska Republican Convention, saying what's most important for the party is to work to get President George W. Bush re-elected and to ensure Alaska's congressional delegation remains 100 percent Republican.
Strong divisions over who should represent the party in an upcoming U.S. Senate battle with former governor Tony Knowles, however, indicate the party is more divided than it might appear.
More than 400 delegates gathered at the Soldotna Sports Center on Friday and Saturday, intent on getting to the business of electing delegates to the national convention and solidifying the party's platform. In between a variety of committee meetings and closed-door strategy sessions, the delegates also gathered on the convention's main floor to listen to speeches from a number of prominent Republican leaders.
Speeches included video-taped messages from Bush, Sen. Ted Stevens and Congressman Don Young, as well as live talks from Lt. Gov. Loren Leman, U.S. Senate candidate Mike Miller, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman. And while all focused on the theme that Bush's re-election is vital to the nation's future, speakers did not avoid the issue of the upcoming Alaska primary, where Murkowski is expected to face a stiff challenge from Miller.
"Don (Young) and I strongly support Lisa Murkowski," Stevens told the group from Washington D.C., via video in one of the first speeches delivered Friday morning.
Stevens said both the president and the Republican members of Congress also are in support of Murkowski's re-election.
Not all prominent Alaska Republicans are backing Murkowski. Leman, who last week came out in support of Miller's campaign, also spoke Friday morning. He said it's important to recognize that the race between the eventual Republican nominee for the Senate and Knowles could very well determine which party controls the Senate, where Republicans currently hold a 51-49 majority.
"The stakes in the U.S. Senate races are high," Leman said.
Although Leman refrained from mentioning either Miller or Murkowski by name, the issue of his endorsement played prominently in his speech. He said no matter which candidate Republicans back, the important thing is not to let the primary race drive a wedge between party members.
"We must unite on Aug. 25 to be victorious in November," Leman said, indicating that whoever wins the primary deserves the full support from party faithful.
Leman also said he believes a healthy race for the Senate seat is a good thing for the party.
"We should not fear choice and competition in our party's process in selecting a nominee," he said.
In an interview following Leman's speech, Miller said he believes Leman chose to back him because the lieutenant governor doesn't think Murkowski can win an election where she's pitted against Knowles.
"He doesn't believe Lisa can beat Tony," Miller said.
Miller, who has presented himself as a more conservative option for voters than Murkowski, also said Murkowski could be hurt if Knowles were to bring up the fact that Murkowski was appointed to her seat by her father, Gov. Frank Murkowski, when the elder Murkowski was elected governor.
"It could be an issue," he said.
However, Miller said a strong fight during the primary is not a negative thing for the party to deal with.
"I think people have realized competition is a good thing," he said.
Later Friday evening, Sen. Murkowski took the opportunity to give her views on the Senate race.
Speaking to a dinnertime audience in the final speech of the day, Murkowski stressed that her experience and growing seniority in the Senate make her the logical choice for Republicans hoping to continue Alaska's strong presence in Congress.
"Right now I am fifth in line to be chair of (the Senate) Energy and Natural Resources (Committee) fifth out of 16 Senators," she said.
Murkowski said it would be a bad idea to break up the team of Young, Stevens and herself because of the clout Alaska's delegation has on Capitol Hill.
"The word on the hill is you don't mess with the Alaska delegation," she said.
She said she's spent much of her first term in the Senate battling with environmental groups intent on curbing Alaska's resource development.
"We are seeing Outside environmental agendas hitting our turf and hitting it hard," she said, noting that Knowles would likely add to Alaska's woes if elected senator.
Murkowski also took time out to address the nepotism issue and took Miller and his supporters to task for using it as a campaign issue.
"At the same time they say they're not going to make it a campaign issue, they continue to do so," she said.
She told the audience she was appointed not because she's the governor's daughter, but because she was the most qualified person for the job.
"I would never had accepted," she said "... if I did not feel I were up to the task."
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