There is no shortage of reminders in Ted Stevens’ hometown that the 84-year-old dean of Senate Republicans is running for reelection.
Along the road in Girdwood, an oversize campaign sign stands in front of a shop selling candles carved from crude oil into the shapes of bears and otters. Posters are staked into lawns of cabins that dot the yellow birch-filled hillsides. The only thing missing is Stevens -- who is spending seat time in a federal courtroom in Washington, where his corruption trial is unfolding.
He isn’t the only Alaska politician who seems to have disappeared from the state.
Gov. Sarah Palin -- on the campaign trail as Republican presidential nominee John McCain’s running mate -- hasn’t been seen on her home turf in weeks. Her lieutenant governor says he can’t even get her on her BlackBerry. Atty. Gen. Talis Colberg also is taking heat for having slipped off to Kansas this month on vacation while his office was investigating Palin’s firing of the state public safety commissioner, who allegedly refused to terminate Palin’s former brother-in-law, a state trooper.
In this strange election season, some here are giving odds that “Uncle Ted” will win reelection even if he loses a pedal-to-the-metal gambit to clear his name before voters go to the polls Nov. 4.
“Even if he gets convicted . . . I don’t think the people who have voted for him all these years are going to be swayed,” said Gary Wilson, a 61-year-old podiatrist who lives a few blocks from the modest A-frame “chalet” that is at the center of the charges against Stevens.
The lawmaker was indicted in August on charges of accepting $250,000 in improvements to his home from a now-defunct oil services company and not reporting them.
Stevens is “running against a young do-gooder who’s never done anything in his life,” said George Dailey, who owns the candle shop on the edge of town. Voters, Dailey said, should not forget “everything Ted Stevens has done for the state of Alaska over the last 40 years.”
The biggest boost to Stevens’ long-distance campaign may have come from Palin -- who soared to popularity in Alaska on an anti-corruption platform, bashing the good-old-boys network of which he long has been the CEO.
Stevens and veteran GOP Alaska Rep. Don Young, who is facing a reelection fight of his own, have seen their prospects improve since Palin’s ascension to the top of the GOP ticket. Her candidacy, analysts said, has resulted in a closing of ranks in what had been a divided state Republican Party.
“It’s all kind of odd. Clearly, Ted has come very, very strongly back into this race,” said Ivan Moore, an Anchorage pollster.
Late last week, Moore said, his survey showed Stevens running 2 percentage points behind his Democratic opponent, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich. Other polls put Begich up to 6 percentage points ahead. In surveys taken right after his indictment, Stevens had trailed by 17 percentage points.
Moore said Begich might have projected too weak an image for Alaskans by focusing on “cutesy” children’s issues and family, “while Ted’s growling about how he’s never going to get taken alive.”
But Palin’s nomination has had a unifying effect, even though she has not publicly endorsed Stevens and supported Lt. Gov Sean Parnell’s unsuccessful bid to unseat Young in last month’s primary.
“We don’t know for a fact that the Palin selection had anything to do with the [Stevens] bounce, but you can surmise it, and . . . it’s certainly ironic, given that they’ve never really seen eye-to-eye,” Moore said.
Stevens and Young have taken a beating over their use of federal “earmarks” -- including a proposed $223 million for the failed “bridge to nowhere” project that would have linked the city of Ketchikan, Alaska, to a small island airport. According to the group Taxpayers for Common Sense, Stevens is leading all Senate lawmakers in 2009 defense appropriations, with $238.5 million in earmark requests for Alaska.
Begich’s campaign thinks Palin’s focus on reform will benefit his candidacy.
“Sen. Stevens has been telling folks that [Palin] helps him, but if you notice, Gov. Palin hasn’t said anything about Stevens since she got tapped” for the vice presidency, said Julie Hasquet, Begich’s spokeswoman. “We believe that if Alaskans in particular are voting for Palin because she’s . . . rooting out corruption, then those people are going to vote for Mark Begich.”
Stevens and his staff declined to be interviewed. But at a news conference in Anchorage before his trial opened last week, the senator expressed confidence that he would be acquitted. He has said he paid all the bills presented for the improvements to his home, and that he would never have intentionally failed to report a gift.
“I believe I’ve done nothing wrong. I have faith that I’ve done nothing wrong, and that’s something the Alaskan people understand,” he said. “In the last three months I’ve traveled the state extensively. There’s been overwhelming support and kindness shown to me about this, and this has sustained me and my family.”
Stevens said he planned to return to Alaska to campaign as often as he could, but would spend most of the next few weeks in Washington.
Those Girdwood residents who don’t have Stevens signs in their yards say the senator should be held accountable if he committed a crime.
“Stevens isn’t going before a judge because he didn’t do anything wrong, and no matter how insignificant it is -- $250,000 may not be so much -- but the bottom line is, it’s illegal,” said Ellie Burnett, 51, a local ski shop manager. “If I speed and get pulled over, don’t I have to pay the ticket?”
If convicted and reelected, Stevens’ fate would be in the hands of the Senate. But many here think he would step down without being asked.
“It would just be a matter of pride for him,” Dailey said.