U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens hasn't had a close election contest since The Beatles released the White Album and Vince Lombardi was the winning coach in Super Bowl II.
Stevens has brushed aside all opponents since 1968. That's the year Gov. Wally Hickel appointed him to the Senate seat that opened when E.L. "Bob" Bartlett died after heart surgery in Cleveland.
It's long been conventional wisdom that like Bartlett, who served Alaska in the nation's capital for nearly a quarter century, Stevens would be senator for life. But, for the first time in the lifetime of many Alaskans, there is serious talk "Uncle Ted" could be vulnerable.
"People are watching the race that haven't watched a Ted Stevens race since 1970," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
Sabato publishes the nationally watched Crystal Ball forecasts of congressional races. The latest version of it declares Stevens "mired in a major corporate scandal."
The ongoing federal investigation into corruption in Alaska politics has opened up at least the potential of a political earthquake rocking the state in the fall elections.
"He's more vulnerable than he has been before," conceded Anchorage pollster and political consultant Dave Dittman, who is working for the Stevens campaign.
Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich predicts both Stevens and Alaska Congressman Don Young will be gone after 2008.
"The delegation for the first time in decades will have serious competition for those seats," said Begich, 45, who is contemplating a run as a Democrat against the 84-year-old Stevens. "And I do believe those seats will change over."
It's the kind of talk that even a year ago might have been dismissed as pure fantasy. Alaskans have acclaimed Stevens -- the longest serving Republican in the Senate -- with every conceivable honor, up to and including "Alaskan of the Century."
Democrats point to the FBI and IRS raid of Stevens' Girdwood home in July as a turning point. That raid was part of a wider corruption probe centered on the oil field services company Veco Corp. Stevens has not been charged with any crime, though, and national Congress watcher Sabato is not ready to bet against him in next fall's elections.
Sabato's Crystal Ball forecast says the race "leans Republican." He's still Ted Stevens after all.
Stevens has had troubles like never before but can draw on a reservoir of goodwill in Alaska and remains a difficult opponent, noted Anchorage Democratic state Sen. Hollis French.
"I've talked to Democratic-leaning voters who say 'I'd vote for him even if he was in jail," French said.
French said he does think Stevens can be beaten and is tempted to run against the senator himself. But he does not want to get in a Democratic primary fight with Begich.
Stevens acts as confident as ever.
"I'm not worried about this campaign. Not in the least," he told reporters in Washington, D.C., recently.
Stevens' campaign treasurer, Tim McKeever, said the senator expects to run the same kind of campaign he always has. He said Stevens sees the campaign as an opportunity to explain to Alaskans how he's been taking care of their business in Washington.
The Stevens campaign has done some polling, McKeever said. He would not disclose the results but said Stevens maintains a high job performance rating in the polls.
"And would do well if the election were being held now," McKeever said.
That's contrary to a poll that national firm Research 2000 did last month for the left-leaning Web site Daily Kos. That statewide telephone poll of 600 likely Alaska voters found Begich would win 47 percent of the vote to Stevens' 41 percent. The poll made no mention of the other candidates in the U.S. Senate race, including Democratic muckraker Ray Metcalfe and Republican challenger David Cuddy.
The national focus is on Begich. Top Democratic U.S. senators have wooed the mayor.
"Everybody's waiting to see whether Begich jumps in," said the University of Virginia's Sabato. "People on the Democratic side keep telling me he will. I don't know."
Begich said he doesn't plan to say yea or nay until the spring.
Sabato said he thinks Begich can afford to wait -- at least when it comes to raising money.
"The Democratic senatorial campaign committee has been dramatically out-raising their Republican counterparts. They could help him rather quickly. He would be competitive in funding," Sabato said
Stevens has a head start: more than a million dollars in campaign cash on hand. The state's most expensive U.S. Senate contest was in 2004, when Tony Knowles and Lisa Murkowski combined to raise about $11 million -- the vast majority of it in the year of the election.
Begich said -- contrary to speculation -- he's not holding out to see what might happen with the federal investigation of Stevens.
"It doesn't matter really what happens with Ted Stevens or not, with all this other noise out there," Begich said.
Begich said his biggest consideration is whether political life in Washington, D.C., is right for his family.
"I've lived it as a member of a family that had a father in Congress. I've seen what it can do to families," Begich said. "I have a 5-year-old son. It's a life-changing experience."
The mayor's father was Nick Begich, who was Alaska's congressman before he died in a 1972 plane crash somewhere between Anchorage and Juneau.
Begich said people, at times lifelong Republicans, come up to him every day and urge him to run. Some don't like Stevens but many think it is just time for a new generation, he said. That's liable to be a theme in any Begich campaign for the Senate.
Ray Metcalfe, 57, of Anchorage has already filed to run against Stevens. The former Republican state legislator and later founder of the Republican Moderate Party is running this time as a Democrat. He's been dismissed in the past as "Disco Ray," a perennial candidate. But he has become something of folk hero for many people over the past year.
It began when he was among the first to publicly challenge the Veco consulting contracts for Stevens' son, then-president of the state Senate Ben Stevens. Ben Stevens, who has not been charged with any crime, is now under federal investigation.
Metcalfe has used complaints with the state's campaign watchdog agency as a sword. His presence in the U.S. Senate campaign means it is sure to include allegations.
"I intend to do my best to educate people on the corruption that's had a grip on this state for years," Metcalfe said of his Senate campaign.
He would go after Stevens and Begich with equal zeal. Metcalfe has previously leveled allegations about the mayor's ties to Anchorage developers Jonathan Rubini and Leonard Hyde, and his role in a project the developers were involved with.
Begich said Metcalfe shoots from the hip and is inaccurate. Begich said the state's voters are interested in what candidates can do if elected, not in whom they can try to tear down in a campaign.
"If that's Ray's agenda, honestly that's pitiful," he said.
Metcalfe is hoping to tap into the kind of "throw the bums out" sentiment that helped insurgent Republican Sarah Palin win the governor's race last year. Stevens is also facing a Republican challenger running on reform, Anchorage real estate developer David Cuddy.
Cuddy, 55, is a former state legislator who comes from one of Alaska's best-known banking families and is a former bank president himself. Cuddy previously ran against Stevens in 1996. He spent roughly $1 million in that Republican primary race, mostly from his own bank account, and captured 27 percent of the vote -- another victim of Stevens' election appeal.
Cuddy said other candidates are frozen out of campaign cash and support as long as Stevens is in the race.
"He's got people who will fall on their sword for him," Cuddy said. "He's done favors for them."
But Anchorage state Sen. French said Stevens would have a challenge this time articulating what he is going to get done in the next six years that he has not in the past 30-plus years, especially now that the Democrats are in control of the U.S. Senate.
Stevens said in a prepared statement he's still effective, pointing to the hundreds of millions of dollars for Alaska projects in the omnibus spending bill Congress recently passed.
"This campaign will be about who can best fight for Alaskans," Stevens said.
Find Sean Cockerham online at adn.com/contact/scockerham or call him at 257-4344.
Ted Stevens' past U.S. Senate general election results
Who's in the 2008 race
Independently petitioned to be on the ballot
Other potential candidates
Mark Begich, D.
Hollis French, D.