The final days in the race for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate offered some only-in-Alaska moments, as when the three major candidates were asked in a debate about whether they'd eaten salmon in the last week.
Tea party candidate Joe Miller: "Yes."
Front-runner Dan Sullivan: "Yes."
Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, showing impressive culinary dedication to the Alaska state fish: "Yes, about five times."
There were nasty national political disputes, one over the mailer Miller sent around depicting undocumented immigrants as menacing gang members. When Treadwell took the 47-year-old lawyer to task, Miller defended his stance, calling the document "the truth" and "real-world stuff."
But the pivotal moment was one Republicans in the Last Frontier worried might never happen. When asked whether he would endorse a Republican rival against Democratic Sen. Mark Begich if he loses Tuesday's primary, Miller finally said that he would.
"I believe I'm going to be the primary winner, with the voters' and God's help," Miller said Thursday during the last televised debate in the heated race. "But if one of you two guys — I've never said this before: I'll support you guys. I will. We've got to get rid of Begich. There's no question about it."
Miller has shaken up Republican politics in Alaska before, and the fear was that he would do it again by continuing on as an independent, splitting the conservative vote and allowing incumbent Begich to sail to victory.
That fear spoke to the stakes involved as Republicans try to knock off Begich, a first-term senator whose defeat would be crucial to GOP hopes of taking over the Senate. Political scientist Forrest Nabors, a professor at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, called the development "a huge deal" in "one of the most dramatic primaries I've ever seen."
A third-party challenge would have been an odd echo of the last contentious Alaska Senate race, in 2010, in which the father of eight took on incumbent Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski in that cycle's primary and beat her. Murkowski then turned around and launched a write-in campaign, and managed to hold on to her seat.
Many wrote Miller off for dead politically after that bruising loss, and most polls show him a distant third behind Sullivan — who has served as state attorney general and U.S. assistant secretary of State — and Treadwell, largely in that order. He is also third in the race for campaign donations.
But Alaska is a notoriously tricky state to survey accurately, with its vast geography and sparse population. And Miller appears to have been closing the gap with his rivals.
Treadwell and Miller both have emphasized social issues on the campaign trail, even if the three men who would be senator gave nearly identical responses to a survey from Alaska Family Action. All are in favor of a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. All would repeal the federal healthcare law. All would overturn Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion.
Treadwell, however, went one step further, noting that the only time abortion should be legal is "in the rare circumstances that the mother and child will die if the pregnancy continues and all other possible means to save the mother and child have been exhausted."
Though the state tends to lean libertarian — it is legal to possess a small amount of marijuana but not sell it, and nearly 75% of voters support some recognition of same-sex unions — the man whose favorite name-dropping reference is tea party darling Ted Cruz is benefiting from support from that wing of the party.
In recent days, Miller has snagged the endorsement of high-profile conservatives, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County in Arizona, who calls himself "America's toughest sheriff."
"Joe Miller is a true Constitutional Conservative with a vision to protect our borders and restore America," Arpaio said in a statement on Miller's website. "He is the only GOP candidate in Alaska's U.S. Senate race who is 100% against amnesty and who will boldly confront the lawlessness of the Obama administration."
But first he has to beat Sullivan, Treadwell and Begich.