JUNEAU -- In one of America's most remote political outposts, Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan both hope to mine a rich lode of independent voters for the quirkiest of political coups -- beating Al Gore for second place.
With only 473,648 registered voters, Alaska might seem an odd target for third-party candidates hoping to reap federal matching money by winning at least 5 percent of the nation's popular vote.
But the 49th state offers something else to Nader and Buchanan. Nearly 60 percent of Alaska's voters are neither Republican nor Democrat, and the state has a history of strong third-party finishes. Ross Perot got 27 percent of the vote in Alaska in 1992, nearly beating Bill Clinton for second place behind Republican President George Bush.
Meanwhile, Texas Gov. George W. Bush is widely viewed as unbeatable here, and Gore is often vilified as a tool of national environmental groups. Neither major candidate has visited the state this year or plans to before Election Day.
For Nader and Buchanan, second place seem attainable.
Buchanan campaigned in Anchorage and Fairbanks on Monday with a message tailored to Alaskan resentment of the Lower 48.
''To finish second in Alaska would send a message to the Lower 48 of basically 'hands off Alaska,''' Buchanan said as he shook hands with travelers at Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage. ''Alaska suffers from the fact that the environmental extremists are targeting Alaska and the federal bureaucrats look upon Alaska as their private playpen.''
While Bush and Gore, direct money to battlegrounds elsewhere, Buchanan has a television commercial running here. He's grafting himself onto the campaign against a ballot measure that would restore a ban on land-and-shoot wolf hunting, a hot-button issue that pits conservatives and rural Alaska Natives against animal-rights activists.
''It's got some pictures of a pack of wolves with blood dripping out of their mouths after they've finished off a moose,'' Buchanan said with relish.
While Buchanan would seem the stronger candidate -- he won the Republican presidential straw poll in 1996 and appeals to a strong block of religious and social conservatives -- GOP leaders and pollsters see Nader carving off a bigger chunk this year.
''He's turned off so many people, even though this was hard-core Buchanan country,'' Art Hackney, Bush's campaign chairman for Alaska, said of Buchanan. ''I think they just find him now as a much odder duck than they did before.''
Nader's campaign stresses populis issues such as his strong stand against the recent merger of BP Amoco and Atlantic Richfield Co., which would have consolidated control of the state's oil reserves. Under pressure from the Federal Trade Commission, BP Amoco agreed to sell off Arco's Alaska assets.
Nader also reached out for the Native vote last week, joining in a call for an intense federal investigation into the slayings of several Native women in recent weeks.
''Both Gore and Bush have given Alaska up to Bush, so we don't want people to waste a vote on Gore, which says nothing,'' said Stephen Cleary, who's running Nader's campaign in Alaska.
Democrats say they haven't written off Alaska, and doubt that Nader will cut deeply into their support.
''I don't think people are that fickle, and I don't think either Buchanan or Nader is likely to finish anywhere close to second in Alaska,'' said Chris Cooke, chairman of the Alaska Democratic Party.
Seventeen percent of Alaskans polled last month by the American Research Group said they would likely vote for Nader, compared to 47 percent for Bush and 27 percent for Gore. Buchanan barely registered in that survey.
Dick Bennett, the president of American Research Group, said Nader's support tends to increase in places where Gore is viewed as having no chance.
''It's a good protest vote,'' Bennett said. ''People are undeclared for a reason. I think that Nader speaks to that.''
However, local pollsters and political consultants predict a weaker finish for Nader. They're dubious that a Green Party candidate can steal much support from a Democrat many Alaskans already consider too green.
''I don't see it,'' said Dave Dittman, an Anchorage pollster and political consultant. ''They're both too fringey.''
Dittman said that in his most recent Alaska Poll, 48 percent of the 500 people surveyed between Oct. 17-22 said they would vote for Bush, 21 percent for Gore, 8 percent for Nader and 1 percent for Buchanan. The survey has a sampling error of about 5 percent.
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