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Alaska governor's election chances difficult to judge
Anchorage Daily News


December 13, 2005

JUNEAU, Alaska - Gov. Frank Murkowski ought to send Ohio Gov. Bob Taft a Christmas card.

Taft is the only thing keeping Murkowski from being ranked last in approval among the nation's governors. Murkowski's rating has consistently been 49th out of the 50 governors in a monthly poll conducted by the national firm SurveyUSA. He's ranked just ahead of Taft, who broke his state's laws about reporting gifts.

Alaska's election for governor is less than a year away, and Murkowski hasn't ruled out running for re-election. Still, he doesn't sound worried about his dismal poll numbers.

"If I decide to, I will run and I will win," he told reporters recently.

He could be right. The Republican governor's potential challengers have problems as well, if polls are to be believed. The Democratic field is in flux until former Gov. Tony Knowles makes up his mind about whether he is running.




The general election isn't for another 11 months. Nevertheless, politicians and campaign professionals are beginning to nervously pore over polls as they maneuver for position and try to take advantage of the traditional year-end fundraising

Republican candidate Sarah Palin has promising early poll numbers. But the former Wasilla mayor needs to work on name recognition. A closer look also shows a lot of Palin's favor comes from registered independents and nonpartisan voters, some of whom told Hellenthal and Associates pollsters they usually vote Democratic.

That could be a problem in the closed Republican primary. Registered Republicans can vote in it and so can voters not affiliated with any political party. But the primary election tends to draw out the party faithful.

Palin said she's not worried about it.

"Seventy percent of Alaskans will be able to pick up that Republican ballot and cast their votes for me," she said.

Other potential Republican candidates for governor are waiting to hear whether Murkowski is running before committing to the race. After all, Murkowski, who spent 22 years in the U.S. Senate before winning election as governor in 2002, hasn't lost an election since 1970.

But in the November SurveyUSA poll, Murkowski had just a 26 percent approval rating. Ohio's Taft had 19 percent approval.

Taft has been convicted on four misdemeanor counts of failing to report 52 golf outings, dinners and other entertainment gifts. Murkowski has not been personally implicated in any ethics scandals, although associates of his have.

SurveyUSA, based in New Jersey, conducts opinion polls for television stations. None of its clients is from Alaska, but the company polls here in order to put together its 50-state rankings.

Murkowski's approval ratings have been in the dumps since shortly after he took office in 2002. He has made decisions that angered identifiable pressure groups: cutting out the longevity bonus for many of the elderly, dropping direct state payments to local governments; raising oil taxes. Controversial acts like insisting on buying a state jet probably haven't helped.

Murkowski is well aware of his poll numbers. But he said the state is in good shape and he thinks he does have a strong support base.

Pollster David Dittman, who primarily works for Republicans, said he still wouldn't count Murkowski out.

"When my friends start ragging on him, saying he is unelectable, I say, 'Hold on a minute,' " Dittman said.

Dittman said he tested Murkowski's popularity in an October poll "just for my own curiosity." Murkowski had a 35 percent approval and 61 percent disapproval in that poll, Dittman said, with the rest unsure of their feelings about the governor.

Dittman said he asked those who disapproved of Murkowski whether they didn't like what the governor does or just disagreed with how he does it. Twenty-two percent of them, Dittman said, just didn't like his style.

Dittman said those 22 percent could be won over in an election campaign. Murkowski could say "I don't ask you to love me, and I'm doing what I said I would do."

"A lot of that personal dislike could become a grudging admiration," Dittman said.

Fat chance, said pollster Ivan Moore, who is working for Rep. Ethan Berkowitz, one of the Democratic candidates for governor.

"People vote for (candidates) they have good feelings about. It's as simple as that. People just don't vote for people they don't like," Moore said.

Moore said he likes the poll numbers he's seeing for his candidate, Berkowitz, with positives in the upper 30 percent range and negatives in the teens.

A Hellenthal and Associates poll from the summer had Berkowitz with a 28 percent "positive" or "somewhat positive" and a 12 percent "negative" or "very negative." More than 20 percent were neutral on Berkowitz and almost 40 percent had no idea who he was.

He's the Democratic House minority leader.

Moore and the Hellenthal poll say Berkowitz has higher name recognition than the other declared Democratic candidate for governor, state Rep. Eric Croft, of Anchorage. Croft's positives in the polls were lower than Berkowitz's. But so were his negatives. It's pretty much a wash, Croft said.

"There's still around half the people who don't know (of) us. So the challenge for Ethan and I is to go out and introduce ourselves," Croft said. "Hopefully in a way that they like us."

A huge election question is whether Knowles will enter the race. Knowles was elected to two terms as governor, then lost a bid for the U.S. Senate in 2004.

"I call him 'the eraser' because (his candidacy) would simply erase Berkowitz and Croft from consideration," opined Hellenthal.

Knowles has almost universal name recognition and would be able to quickly assemble a statewide campaign.

Knowles did not return a phone message for this story. His former spokesman Bob King said he discussed the matter with Knowles. "He says he is keeping his options open," King said.

Another wild card is former Republican state Rep. Andrew Halcro, of Anchorage, who is running for governor as an independent.

Moore said his polling shows Halcro might take votes away from a Democrat in the November general election and hand victory to Murkowski. He said he took Halcro out to lunch and told him so.

Halcro disputes the argument. He said there are frustrated voters of all political affiliations and he thinks a lot of people won't vote party line next year. Halcro said the campaign hasn't even started, the field isn't set and voters haven't heard candidates' messages.

The public doesn't start focusing on the campaigns until shortly before the election, Halcro said, dismissing these early polls.


Distributed to subscribers by Scripps-McClatchy Western Service,

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Ketchikan, Alaska