ANCHORAGE -- Write-in ballots held the lead in the Alaska Senate race late Tuesday, a good sign potentially for Sen. Lisa Murkowski's long-shot effort to keep her job.
It also could mean another nailbiter end to a race between Murkowski and tea party favorite Joe Miller, who defeated her in the GOP primary by 2,006 votes. And the prospect for a battle over ballots loomed.
With 78 percent precincts reporting late Tuesday, write-ins had about 40 percent of the vote. GOP nominee Miller had 35 percent and Democrat Scott McAdams had about 24 percent.
The numbers held virtually steady most of the night, and Murkowski, who entered Election Central with supporters chanting "Six more years!" said it was a "pretty sweet spot to be at."
She is one of 160 write-in candidates eligible for the race. And while the write-in count only speaks to total ballots cast for write-ins -- not to names written on them -- she believed only a smaller number would be cast aside for reasons like a voter forgetting to fill in the oval.
Miller, who'd expressed hope earlier in the day that he'd win the race outright Tuesday night, told supporters gathered in Anchorage to go home for the night, and he also left a party early. He told them they would know more in the morning.
His campaign manager, Robert Campbell, said the overall initial results were disappointing but he ceded nothing. He said "several teams," including those with attorneys, would be on their way to Alaska for the ballot count.
For election workers to legally be required to count names on ballots, the total of all write-in votes cast in the race must either represent the most votes received by any candidate in the race or represent the second highest total, with the difference between the number of write-in votes and the highest votes received by a candidate at less than 0.5 percent.
Lt. Gov. Craig Campbell, who oversees elections in Alaska, said he would ask the Division of Elections whether workers could begin the task of determining who the write-in vote-getters are perhaps within the next few days in an effort to avoid keeping the candidates, and citizens, in the dark for the next two weeks.
"I don't think we need to wait for an arbitrary date," he told The Associated Press. "The whole point is, we want to do the right thing and we want to do it as fast as we can."
The division has said it likely wouldn't begin counting names on write-ins, if the threshold to count them was tripped, until about Nov. 18. The first batch of absentees votes isn't expected to be counted until next Tuesday, Nov. 9.
Division Director Gail Fenumiai said she'd prefer to do the write-in count at one time, not piecemeal, but she said a decision on what approach to take would probably be made in the next few days.
A cliffhanger ending could be a fitting end to what's been a drama-filled Senate race.
Murkowski is seeking to make history as the first U.S. Senate candidate since Strom Thurmond in 1954 to win as a write-in. Her campaign saw a possible omen in the San Francisco Giants' winning their first World Series since '54 on Monday.
The race featured a rematch between Murkowski and Miller, the political upstart who won the August GOP primary with the support of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party Express -- both of which re-emerged late in this race.
Miller and Murkowski, who promised to let no attack on her go unanswered, went tit-for-tat during a general election that saw McAdams, a former local school board member and mayor of Sitka, seeking to stay out of the fray and raise his own profile among Alaskans -- and even Democrats -- who had little idea who he was after his primary win.
Throughout the race, Murkowski stressed her seniority and cast herself as a voice for all Alaskans, not just conservatives. She also got support from the third-party Alaskans Standing Together, a PAC formed by Alaska Native corporations that reported spending more than $1.2 million to help her win.
Miller, meanwhile, said he was an outsider -- in spite of getting backing from within the Republican establishment -- and a reformer who would be unyielding in pushing for change in an out-of-control Washington.
Miller sought to overcome a series of campaign hiccups that he attributed partly to the inexperience of his campaign staff and his not being a "professional politician," and partly to opponents desperate to distract voters' attention from the issues.
Miller had to acknowledge that he or his family received government benefits, the likes of which he's questioned as a limited government candidate.
Also, his security detail handcuffed a journalist after a town hall -- an incident that was included in a Murkowski ad against Miller.
Finally, records released last week showed Miller had admitted to lying about improperly using government computers while a borough attorney in 2008.
Miller has said he's not perfect and cast himself as an Everyman, angry at a federal government that's out-of-control and willing to work to scale it back to the powers spelled out in the Constitution. He said a win for him would be a win for the tea party movement.
Murkowski dismissed talk about this race sending a message nationally.
"This is about Alaska," she said, adding later: "This is about Alaskans jobs. This is about the agenda for us as a state and where we go from here, and I think that sets us apart from what's going on in say, South Carolina or Colorado."
She said her campaign also was prepared to make sure "every vote is counted" and no Alaskan is disenfranchised.
McAdams cast himself as the only moderate and progressive in the race, and he urged Alaskans to vote their values and not out of fear -- a nod to the concerns some voters have had about Miller and whether Murkowski or McAdams was more capable of succeeding.
McAdams all but conceded Tuesday night, saying that he believed he got "about half" of Democrats over to his side. He said that if he'd had another month, he believes he could have won.
"We're very happy with what we've done," he said. "We left it all on the field."
AP Photographer Ben Margot in Anchorage contributed to this report.
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