JUNEAU -- She's been part of the inner circle for the past seven years, serving as lieutenant governor to a popular two-term governor.
But Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer has been waging largely an underdog campaign in her bid to become the first woman elected to the state's top office.
And that's with good reason.
Fran Ulmer grew up in Horicon, Wis. She attended the University of Wisconsin where she majored in economics and political science. She earned a law degree from the University of Wisconsin Law School.
Ulmer moved to Alaska in 1973 after serving as an anti-trust attorney with the Federal Trade Commission in Washington, D.C. She began her political career as a staff adviser to Republican Gov. Jay Hammond, first as legislative liaison and then director of Policy Development.
She served one term as mayor of Juneau and was first chair of the U.S. Conference of Women Mayors.
Ulmer became a registered Democrat in 1986 and served four two-year terms in the state House of Representatives. She served as Minority Leader when the GOP took control of the House in 1994.
Ulmer has served two terms as lieutenant governor under Gov. Tony Knowles.
As a legislator she sponsored a bill to lengthen the statute of limitations for prosecuting cases of child abuse and neglect. She also sponsored a bill to require insurance coverage for mammograms.
Ulmer was appointed by former President Clinton to serve on the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission, a panel created to enforce the high seas driftnet ban. Ulmer also served on the Governor's Salmon Cabinet.
Ulmer met and married Bill Council in Juneau. They have two children.
Ulmer has an interest in Native culture and holds an honorary distinction of being an adopted Tlingit and member of the Alaska Native Sisterhood. Ulmer is also a singer who performed on U.S.O. tours in the 1960s and once sang the Star Spangled Banner at a Seattle Mariners game.
The Knowles-Ulmer administration narrowly won office in 1994, beating Republican Jim Campbell by less than 540 votes in a recount. Nearly 14 percent of the vote was split between three other candidates for governor. Knowles and Ulmer took 51 percent of the vote in 1998.
Ulmer has never lost an election.
Despite being Gov. Tony Knowles' lieutenant governor since 1994, Ulmer was unknown to about one-fourth of the people in Alaska.
Ulmer has battled back from polls that show her trailing Republican challenger Frank Murkowski by as much as 20 percent. With less than a month before voters go to the polls, the two candidates are nearly even.
''She's decided to run for office and is making a real good run,'' said Clem Tillion, a Murkow-ski supporter who worked with Ulmer during the Hammond administration.
Faced with little opposition in the Democratic primary, Ulmer has since waged a down-home style primary fight, traveling in casual dress into Alaska's Bush by boat or the back of pickup trucks and cutting through the Railbelt in a rented motor home.
She's enlisted former Gov. Jay Hammond, one of Alaska's most endearing political figures, to support her campaign. She has released lengthy papers on how she would tackle some of the state's most thorny political issues.
Ulmer and Murkowski, the two major candidates on the Nov. 5 ballot, are a study in contrast. And whatever candidate emerges the victor inherits a state government that is a study in contradiction with its $2 billion surplus and a seemingly insurmountable cash flow problem.
Alaska's reliance on North Slope oil -- which makes up about 80 percent of its coffers -- has gone unabated since the state eliminated its income tax in 1980.
But the 1 million barrels per day of crude oil that flows through the trans-Alaska pipeline is about half of its peak average in 1988.
Alaska's the only state to cut general fund spending during the past decade, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But it has still racked up more than $5 billion in budget shortfalls that have been paid for by its Constitutional Budget Reserve.
The state Department of Reven-ue estimates the $2.2 billion reserve account will last for about three years. New taxes seem as certain for Alaska as defeat does to the candidate that proposes them, said David Reaume, an economist who follows Alaska politics.
''The first candidate to tell the truth loses,'' Reaume said. ''They both understand the problem pretty clearly, and they are both avoiding the truth because they know the truth will kill them.''
Murkowski has touted economic development themes, promising to grease the skids for oil and gas, mining and timber to close the gap.
Both Ulmer and Murkowski support opening the Arctic Na-tional Wildlife Refuge to drilling and construction of a natural gas pipeline to the Lower 48.
But both of those projects face uncertain futures in Congress, and even if they emerge would be several years from fruition, Ulmer said.
Her answer to bridging the state's fiscal gap has been seemingly well detailed. Ulmer will not go on record for favoring a statewide tax, but acknowledges that one is needed.
She promised to veto any budget that involves spending earnings of the Alaska Permanent Fund, unless such spending was approved by voters.
And she advocates using a ''parachute plan'' where taxes automatically kick in when the state's reserve falls below $1 billion. The governor and the Legis-lature would determine what taxes would be used, she said.
Murkowski has derided her pessimism -- pointing to rising oil prices that are slowly brightening more dour state revenue predictions from last spring.
North Slope crude oil has averaged $26.50 per barrel this year, $6 above the department's predictions. At that pace, the state's budget deficit would shrink to about $500 million, the department said.
''I don't think it's a responsible position to say that just because the price of oil is up this week that our problem is not that big of a problem,'' Ulmer said during campaign trip in August.
''The uncertainty about that budget gap is having a chilling effect on our economy,'' she said.
The Ulmer camp has turned up the heat on Murkowski in recent weeks, criticizing his ''don't worry, be happy'' approach to the fiscal gap.
Murkowski has responded to increased pressure, vowing to unveil details of his fiscal plan after returning from Washington, D.C., Oct. 14.
Ulmer is vying to become the first female governor Alaska has elected. Others have run before her, but in a largely conservative state only Republican Arliss Sturgulew-ski has come close.
The former legislator captured 42 percent of the statewide vote in 1986 but lost to Democrat Steve Cowper. She ran again in 1990 and garnered a quarter of the vote in a crowded field. Walter J. Hickel won on the Alaskan Independence ticket with 38 percent of the vote.
Republican pollster David Dittman sees gender as an advantage for Ulmer. Women make up less than half of the state's population, but 52 percent of the electorate.
They vote more consistently than men and, all things being equal, are more likely to vote for another woman, Dittman said.
''That gives her a lock on the Democrat women and some of the nonpartisan women,'' Dittman said.
Ulmer and Murkowski are slated to square off in a series of debates in late October.
Four other candidates representing smaller parties also will appear on the gubernatorial ballot. They are the Green Party's Diane Benson, Libertarian Billy Toien, Alaskan Independence Party candidate Don Wright and Republican Moderate Ray VinZant Sr.
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