ANCHORAGE Republican incumbent Lisa Murkow-ski, who fought off accusations of nepotism after inheriting her U.S. Senate seat from her father, held a steady lead in her quest for a first full term.
''It's been tough, it's been long, it's been hard,'' Murkow-ski told supporters early today. ''Now I think we're at the point where we can say Alaskans have elected their first female senator.''
But Democratic rival Tony Knowles, a former two-term governor who waged an aggressive challenge, was far from conceding defeat, saying rural precincts and all absentee ballots had yet to be tallied.
''A lot of votes have come in and we're not ahead. I've been in this position before. Ten years ago almost to this day I was in a similar position,'' Knowles told supporters, referring to his first gubernatorial win in 1994, when he defeated Republican Jim Campbell by 536 votes.
With 82 percent of precincts reporting, Murkowski led with 114,252 votes or 50 percent to Knowles' 100,743 votes or slightly more than 44 percent.
More than half of the remaining votes went to newcomer Marc Millican, a commercial airline pilot running on a nonpartisan ticket, while three other candidates split the rest.
The Senate race had been considered one of the most competitive in the country as Republicans fought to retain their slim majority. Alaska hasn't had a Democrat in the Senate for 24 years.
Throughout her campaign, Murkowski failed to shake accusations that she hadn't paid her dues. On Tuesday, about two-thirds of Alaska voters said the 2002 appointment was inappropriate, according to an Associated Press exit poll.
Murkowski did well with voters who had served in the military and among those who identified themselves as Christian.
Voters 60 and older and those whose family incomes top $100,000 tended to support Murkowski, while Knowles was favored by 18- to 29-year-old voters and those who make less than $15,000.
Murkowski was strong with men, while Knowles was favored by women.
Murkowski, 47, was chosen by her father, Frank Murkowski, a 22-year Senate veteran to fill the seat he vacated after he was elected governor in 2002.
The appointment, made possible by a change in state law, prompted a public uproar. More than 50,000 voters signed petitions for the initiative to require Senate vacancies be filled by special election, and the measure passed Tuesday.
Murkowski campaigned with assists from Young and the state's powerful senior senator, Republican Ted Stevens, as part of a team that had the experience and GOP clout to deliver the goods for Alaska, which is heavily dependent on federal dollars.
Her campaign received a boost in early October in the form of financial incentives approved by Congress to build a natural gas pipeline from Alaska to the Lower 48. That long-awaited victory became a major feature in GOP ads and a target for Knowles, who said the perks didn't include important tax credits to protect producers against low gas prices.
Knowles, 61, distanced himself from national Democrats, saying he would be an independent voice for Alas-kans, even if it meant defying his own party on development issues such as opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.
Murkowski and Knowles each raised about $4.5 million for the race.
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