Ending months of speculation, U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski threw his hat in the ring as a Republican candidate for governor in 2002.
The 21-year veteran of the U.S. Senate -- widely seen as the top GOP candidate for the post -- made the announcement on Monday while speaking at the Alaska Youth Summit in Talkeetna.
Murkowski said attending the event with about 100 youths from 57 communities convinced him ''more than ever that the greatest contribution I can make at this time is to the youth of Alaska.''
''I look forward to a good campaign focused on the challenges and opportunities facing our state,'' Murkowski was quoted in a statement issued Monday.
After the conference he boarded a plane for Washington, D.C. and was not available for comment, said spokesman Chuck Kleeschulte.
Murkowski will face at least one Republican candidate in the Aug. 27 primary, Wayne A. Ross, of Anchorage. Murkowski's decision came two days after Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer announced her decision to seek the Democratic nomination for governor. Ulmer is seen as that party's favorite.
Murkowski's statement didn't mention Ulmer or two-term Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles. But the statement cited a ''lack of progress'' on a number of issues facing the state.
Among the issues were the state's fiscal gap, declining education performance and funding and a growing rural and urban divide precipitated by the subsistence debate.
Alaska's fiscal gap -- the disparity between revenues and spending in the state's general fund -- is projected to be $650 million by the end of fiscal 2002. It is expected to grow to about $1 billion by fiscal 2005.
Primary and secondary school funding increased by about $24.2 million in this year's budget, including $18 million in the school funding formula. The increase was passed by a GOP-controlled Legislature and signed by Knowles.
But educators have long complained that funding has not kept pace with inflation, precipitating teacher shortages and other fiscal woes.
Murkowski's statement also mentioned a need to diversity the state's economy.
''Many fear that this lack of progress could lead to several crises in just a few years,'' he said in the statement.
A decision to run for the state's top post had been much anticipated by Republicans who feared a looming fund raising deadline could put them at a disadvantage.
State campaign finance law limits individual contributions to $500 per candidate in a calendar year. By announcing this year, a candidate could potentially raise $1,000 per donor by the Nov. 5 election.
''There's time to do some significant fund raising in the last 60 days of the year,'' said state Republican Party Chairman Randy Ruedrich.
Murkowski put off an expected September announcement to focus on efforts to open the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. But the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks took congressional focus off of ANWR, Murkowski said in the statement.
As soon as Congress completes its work, Murkowski will return home to begin campaigning, the statement said.
Ulmer said she was surprised by Murkowski's decision.
''I am surprised he is leaving Washington, D.C. at a time of national emergency and at a time when he had not finished the work he said he wanted to do on ANWR and the (natural gas pipeline),'' Ulmer said.
''I think we need him more in D.C. than we need him here,'' she said.
Kleeschulte railed at the suggestion, adding the election is more than a year away.
''Obviously Senator Murkowski is not leaving Washington anytime soon,'' Kleeschulte said.
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