Alaska Republicans close ranks around Palin

RALLY MODE: Palin's popularity seems to muffle harsh criticism.

September 14, 2008 

In Alaska's small political world, heads are still spinning over Sarah Palin's ascent to national stardom -- and not just because it happened overnight.

Only a few months ago, many leading Republicans here were deriding Palin as a free-spending oil baron in the mold of Hugo Chavez. Now most are doing their best to cheer the governor on as a budget-cutting fiscal conservative running for vice president.

Republican legislators may not like it when she talks in her stump speech about shaking up the good old boy network back home. They grumble that she is once again wielding her broad brush against innocent and guilty alike. But bitter memories of the past two years -- in which Palin's toughest opposition in Alaska came from inside her own political party -- appear to be glazing over in a new era of good feeling.

"You're left with no choice. It's one of those things where you just grin and bear it," said Andrew Halcro, a former Republican state representative and Palin critic. "I've seen people that have been very critical of her just close ranks."

Democrats are also in a tricky position.

Their alliances with Palin led to big legislative victories on oil taxes, the natural gas pipeline and ethics.

Democratic legislators say they oppose the McCain-Palin ticket, and some object to what they see as a new note of sarcasm toward Democrats in Palin's on-stage persona. But they have their own races to run in Alaska this fall, and they aren't eager to stand up against the wave of enthusiasm for Palin.

"It's very difficult for critics to know what to do in a situation like this," said Anchorage pollster and campaign consultant Ivan Moore. He noted that as governor, Palin has had approval ratings of more than 60 percent from registered Democrats here. That could decline, he added, if she becomes the "pit bull" of the McCain campaign.

For now, some Democratic legislators are calling attention to differences on issues such as health care and education, while praising Palin's efforts to find bi-partisan common ground elsewhere as governor.

"On questions of oil and gas, there wasn't a dime's worth of difference between us," said Rep. Harry Crawford, D-Anchorage. "I'm thrilled for the lady. I'll just leave it at that."

CRITICISM IS SUBDUED

As governor since 2006, Palin carried the day on her big oil and gas priorities by combining votes of Democratic and moderate Republican legislators. She succeeded, in part, by not pushing hard in other, potentially controversial areas, such as operating budget cuts and anti-abortion measures.

The final House vote this summer on the gas line license for TransCanada promoted by Palin showed a typical breakdown. The measure was approved 24-16, with 16 Democrats voting yes along with eight swing-vote Republicans.

Oil companies opposed the contract, as they did Palin's oil taxes. Sensing the state's anti-oil mood, Palin used that as an argument in her favor.

Republican opponents, worried that higher oil taxes would hurt industry investment in Alaska, called Palin a closet liberal. Critics said her gas line plan would fail because she spurned the major oil producers. Others objected to her bill giving $1,200 in windfall oil revenue to each resident.

Today, criticism of Palin's populism can still be heard from conservative call-in radio hosts in Anchorage. But few Republican politicians are taking broad swipes, and callers are challenging anyone who sounds negative.

"Sometimes we have our own credibility to worry about," conservative talk radio host Rick Rydell of KENI-AM said last week. "All I keep hearing is, 'Why don't you toe the line?' "

Republicans contacted for this story said there had been no effort by the McCain campaign to suppress critical comments by party members.

But some prominent Republicans have decided on their own to stop complaining. One is former House Speaker Gail Phillips, who has clashed with Palin in the past. Early on, Phillips spoke to several newspapers, including the New York Times, about a perceived lack of vetting by John McCain's campaign of his running mate. But she is no longer giving interviews, she said.

"It's best for Alaska," Phillips said.

NEED TO RALLY ATTITUDE

Rep. Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks, was an outspoken Palin critic during the oil and gas debates. But in a recent interview he veered away from any criticism.

"Everything that's flitting through my mind right now is better left where it is," Ramras said, in answer to a question about Palin as vice-presidential candidate. He said it's time to rally around the governor, whom he called "the American Idol of politics."

House Speaker John Harris, a Valdez Republican, concedes there were splits in his majority caucus and splits that remain in the state Republican Party.

"I'm not one of those who says everything was rosy. There are issues," Harris said. One lingering sore point involves her claims surrounding ethics reform, which Harris said tend to paint all Alaska Republicans in a bad light.

Even so, Harris said he's not hesitating to support Palin in the national race. "From my point of view, Alaskans need to be behind the governor and McCain."

One of the p arty's chief budget experts, Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, sounded conciliatory as he praised Palin's administration for improving the state's financial management practices. He said he still disagrees on some matters, saying Palin doesn't deserve her tax-cutting reputation. He added that the Alaska media made it harder for her critics by going too easy on Palin.

It was her charisma, Hawker said.

"People not only like her, they want to like her. People trust her, and they want to trust her. That's a rare commodity to find in politics."

Palin's most outspoken critic from the right has been retiring Senate President Lyda Green, a Wasilla Republican who was an early ideological ally. Green, who dropped her re-election bid in the face of a strong Palin-backed challenger, doesn't stop at listing specific policy disputes. She says Palin is not ready for such high office.

"How many of us are prepared or ready to be in that kind of lofty position?" Green said this week. "Not many of us. And she would join that population?"

Green has given several national interviews in the past two weeks. She said her concerns go back to the way Palin handled herself as a candidate for governor, attacking Republican corruption so broadly that everyone felt accused. As governor, Green said, Palin kept up the barrage, broadly attacking the legislature over any policy disagreement rather than working with lawmakers.

POPULARITY A WEAPON

If some Alaska Republicans appear to be forgetting their past objections to Palin, Democrats find themselves forced into even more contorted positions.

They contend that on some of Palin's biggest issues, including oil taxes and ethics reform, the governor followed their leadership.

"Her timing was so perfect. We'd been working on these issues for ten years," said Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, the House minority leader. Kerttula said she gets on well personally with the governor, but doesn't think Palin is ready for such high office.

Rep. Mike Doogan, D-Anchorage, wrote in the Washington Post about how Palin had served a tray of cupcakes for his birthday. She's very likeable, Doogan wrote, but she's not the person to have so close to the presidency. He cited several concerns about her reign as governor, including budget growth and high turnover among her aides.

At the same time, it can be risky for Democrats up for re-election to attack the popular governor.

Their bi-partisan cooperation might once have been an election plus for Democrats. Now Palin's presence on the national ballot will increase Republican turnout in November and likely help other Republicans on the state ballot, said Moore, the pollster and consultant.

On the other hand, Palin needs to answer some difficult questions about whether she is supporting the re-election efforts of Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young, both of whom are running under legal clouds, according to Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage. The question seems unavoidable if Palin is running as a reform Republican, Gara said.

Meanwhile, the so-called Troopergate investigation of the Palin administration has become a flashpoint for the governor's critics and defenders.

"Since Aug. 29 (when Palin was picked), the mood has really changed," said Halcro, whose own blog and radio show focus heavily on the investigation. "Now it's, 'Don't talk about it.' It's almost like blasphemy."

Conservative radio host Dan Fagan -- who said he hopes McCain beats Obama in November -- expresses frustration every day as callers object to his bringing up Troopergate and Palin's role. He accuses the governor's defenders of trying to sweep things under the rug to protect her candidacy.

"I'm hearing from my friends on the right, the truth doesn't matter. It's about the team," Fagan complained on his KFQD show this week.


Reporter Sean Cockerham contributed to this story. Find Tom Kizzia online at adn.com/contact/tkizzia or call him at 907-235-4244.

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