The 2010 campaign for U.S. Senate in Alaska has been anything but politics as usual. And two candidates for the seat delighted an Anchorage audience Monday night with all the reasons why the race is one of the most watched in the nation.
Write-in candidate Lisa Murkowski, a veteran Republican lawmaker, and political newcomer Scott McAdams, a Democrat mayor from the town of Sitka, fielded sometimes complex questions from reporters, pointed questions from each other and refreshing questions from the audience at the debate sponsored by the Alaska Dispatch.
Joe Miller, who edged out Murkowski to win the GOP primary in August, declined to attend the debate.
Interestingly, no one seemed to miss him. McAdams and Murkowski had plenty to talk about on issues ranging from the decline of rural communities to health care and abortion to gun rights and gay rights. The debate, held in the evening at the Snow Goose Restaurant, featured a cash bar and gave hundreds of spectators the opportunity to see the candidates in a less stiff setting than the usual business-lunch debate. Hundreds more watched a live feed on the Dispatch website.
Not surprisingly, the candidates played up their stock political themes whenever they could: Murkowski says McAdams isn't experienced enough for Washington, D.C. and her seniority puts the state in a better position to compete for needed federal dollars and sway important issues. McAdams says Alaska is really a collection of small towns and no one understands the needs of a growing state better than a small-town mayor.
And they answered some offbeat and unusual questions, many from the audience.
You both agree Joe Miller is bad for Alaska, one spectator pointed out, and you both agree you're drawing votes from each other. You both say you want what's best for Alaska so will one of you drop out and give the other a better shot at beating Miller?
"My name's on the ballot and it can't be removed," McAdams replied, and went on to argue that he is coming on stronger every day and will win on Nov. 2.
No dropping out for Murkowski either. "We are winning and we are winning every day," she said. "My goal is to keep Joe Miller out of the U.S. Senate, and I am going to work very hard to do just that."
McAdams continued his efforts to give people a chance to get to know him, his folksy style and quick wit drew appreciative laughter and applause from the packed house. And even McAdams acknowledged he's come a long way on getting up to speed on complicated matters facing Congress.
Murkowski is always much more serious in public settings and hard to trip up. She again demonstrated her deep grasp of the issues and Beltway politics on every question.
Murkowski underscored one of the things that's made this a very different election year -- the Internet -- in addressing McAdams' criticism that her write-in effort is doomed to fail like that of other popular Alaska politicians, including Ernest Gruening, Wally Hickel and Robin Taylor.
"The stakes are too high," McAdams said, estimating that Murkowski would have to garner an extra 7,000 votes to offset ballots that will contain errors and won't be counted. "If this race were just between Joe and I, I'd be up 5, 6, 7 points in the polls."
Murkowski pointed out that means one in 12 of her supporters are going to "botch it." She asked her backers in the audience to stand up. "You tell me which one is going to screw this up," she challenged.
"In terms of making history," Murkowski said, "what I have that Wally Hickel and Robin Taylor never had is the Internet. And Twitter, and Facebook. And wristbands. This is not only imminently doable but we are doing it."
And Alaska's favorite former politician also made a virtual cameo when the candidates were asked if they could name three things they admired about Sarah Palin.
"She's a runner," Murkowski said."She did work to advance ethics reform in the Legislature."
She stopped. "So you want me to give another one? Oh! She loves the outdoors."
McAdams didn't get even that far. "Uh, I appreciate she will never refudiate Alaska's ability to develop its resources. Boy, this is a tough question. You know, I'm stumped. But there's something beautiful about every human being."
Contact Patti Epler at patti(at)alaskadispatch.com.