Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin on Tuesday joined top Republicans including her running mate, John McCain, and the Senate Republican leader in calling for Ted Stevens to resign from office.
"After being found guilty on seven felony counts, I had hoped Senator Stevens would take the opportunity to do the statesman-like thing and erase the cloud that is covering his Senate seat," Palin said in a written statement. "He has not done so. Alaskans are grateful for his decades of public service but the time has come for him to step aside."
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Stevens should resign and, if he doesn't, he could be expelled from the U.S. Senate. It would take a two-thirds vote of the Senate to expel the Alaska senator.
"If he is re-elected and the felony charge stands through the appeals process, there is zero chance that a senator with a felony conviction would not be expelled from the Senate," McConnell said while campaigning in Kentucky.
The Republican Party of Alaska is urging voters to support Stevens anyway as he returns to Alaska today to make a final push before Tuesday's election. The message: If Stevens wins and then resigns or is expelled from the Senate, there would be a special election giving Republicans another opportunity to keep the seat out of Democratic hands.
"If it's not Sen. Stevens, we need the choice to have someone else," said McHugh Pierre, the Alaska party spokesman. "But right now Sen. Stevens is our candidate, we're behind him 100 percent, he says he's innocent, he's going to fight these charges, I believe he's innocent and we're going to make sure that our membership and other conservative Alaskans can find it in them to vote for him and prolong their options." Both the Stevens campaign and the state GOP suggested that Palin, who characterizes herself as a reformer as she campaigns for vice president, is saying what she needs to say to get votes in the Lower 48 and Alaska voters should not listen. Pierre said McCain and Palin are in a tough spot, because they want a Republican in the seat to keep the Democrats from obtaining a 60-seat, filibuster-proof majority.
"They can't come out and endorse him; how's that going to look?" Pierre said. Palin, in her statement, seemed open to the possibility that Stevens could stay in office long enough to win re-election next week and then resign, saying that, "even if elected on Tuesday, senator Stevens should step aside to allow a special election to give Alaskans a real choice of who will serve them in Congress."
Stevens' Democratic opponent, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, on Tuesday stopped short of calling on Stevens to resign, saying that "it's up to him to make that decision." He said the issues facing the state are too important to wait months or longer for Stevens' case to be appealed.
NOT ALL BUY PARTY MESSAGE
McCain said Stevens has broken his trust with the people and should now step down. Other Republican senators calling for Stevens to resign include Sens. Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Norm Coleman of Minnesota, who faces a competitive race against comedian Al Franken. Republican Gordon Smith of Oregon, also in a competitive race, echoed their call for his immediate resignation. McCain's close friend and campaign companion Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., also asked for Stevens to resign and "pursue his legal rights as a private citizen."
And not all Alaska Republicans were buying their state party's message. Some said Tuesday that Stevens is through and they'll vote next week for Alaskan Independence Party candidate Bob Bird or the Libertarian in the race, David Haase.
"Sen. Stevens is an 84-year-old man who needs to find a dignified way to get himself out of this predicament other than depending on the people of Alaska," said Spike Jorgenson of Tok, a state party central committee member who said he won't vote for Stevens this year.
Other prominent Republicans, including Anchorage Baptist Temple pastor Jerry Prevo, said they are sticking with Stevens, who has represented Alaska in the U.S. Senate since 1968.
"Based on all that he's done and being a pastor, pastors are a little bit, their tendency is to extend forgiveness and preach forgiveness, so that would just be a natural thing," Prevo said.
State House Speaker John Harris, a Republican from Valdez, said he's supporting Stevens, but only because there isn't enough time to get another Republican on the ballot.
"Had this trial taken place significantly before the election, I'd say he ought to step down. Now, there isn't enough time," Harris said. "I hope he wins, and we'll see what happens after that."
STEVENS BACK TODAY
Stevens shows no sign of stepping down. He is returning to Alaska today and there's going to be a 5:30 p.m. rally for supporters at the PenAir hangar in Anchorage.
"We think Alaskans are fighting (alongside) the senator and we expect that to continue," said Stevens' campaign spokesman, Aaron Saunders.
Saunders said Stevens is running to win. It's far too early to speculate on whether he might later resign, Saunders said, as Stevens "has a series of legal options and he'll be exploring those."
Frank McQueary of Anchorage, a state Republican Party official, said Stevens doesn't deserve what's happening and Alaskans should support him as he appeals his conviction.
"From what I've seen of the transcripts of the trial, the only criminal activities demonstrated were on the part of the prosecutor and the FBI," McQueary said.
Anyone who is even somewhat conservative needs to back Stevens, he said.
"If Sarah (Palin) were truly conservative, her overriding concern should have been not turning that seat over to a liberal ... other than wanting to stand up and look virtuous and chasing public opinion and chasing polls, there was no reason to (call for his resignation). The process hasn't played out with Stevens," he said.
Stevens' campaign announced endorsements Tuesday from the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission and retired Air Force Lt. Gen Tom McInerney, former head of the Alaska Command.
Nick Stepovich of Fairbanks, a Republican Party official and former state legislator, said he thinks voters will fall back on Stevens' years of service next week and elect him to another term.
"I think many Alaskans feel that Stevens is still not done yet," he said.
Sean Cockerham reported from Anchorage and Erika Bolstad from Washington, D.C. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. Daily News reporter James Halpin and the Associated Press contributed to this story.
Palin to return Monday
Gov. Sarah Palin is returning to Alaska on Monday night, her campaign announced Tuesday. It's the first time she's been back to the state since mid-September.
Palin, the Republican nominee for vice president, will vote Tuesday morning in her hometown of Wasilla before leaving for Phoenix, Ariz., to join running mate John McCain for Election Night.