With just four days before the election and Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens insisting he's not a felon, the U.S. Senate race is white hot.
"I've not been convicted yet," Stevens said Thursday in a meeting with the editorial board of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. "There's not a black mark by my name yet, until the appeal is over and I am finally convicted, if that happens. If that happens, of course I'll do what's right for Alaska and for the Senate. ... I don't anticipate it happening, and until it happens I do not have a black mark."
Stevens reiterated that position during a televised debate late Thursday night, declaring early in the give-and-take with Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, "I have not been convicted of anything."
The senator said Gov. Sarah Palin and the other Republicans who have called on him to resign are only doing so for political gain, not because they are sincere. "I wouldn't hold it against them, I understand what they're doing, trying to get elected."
Begich argued during the debate that Stevens can't be effective for the state while he fights his conviction, and with Senate colleagues calling on him to resign.
"Senator Stevens has some serious issues he has to deal with that will distract him," Begich said.
A Washington, D.C., jury Monday convicted Stevens of seven felony counts of lying on financial disclosure forms about thousands of dollars of gifts and home renovations from Veco Corp.
Begich leads in the polls but is trying to keep his supporters from getting too confident, saying it will be a close election Tuesday. It's clear there's a reservoir of goodwill for the 84-year-old Stevens.
The latest bumper sticker to appear in Anchorage: "Vote For Ted Until He's Dead."
Begich, in speaking to a group of BP employees in Anchorage on Thursday, acknowledged that a lot of Alaskans are having a hard time voting against Stevens.
"We have to do what's right, it's painful because he has done a lot of things for us, there's no question about that ... but we must think about the future, not about individuals' desires. He made a comment he's going to fight the appeal as hard as he can with every ounce of energy. We need that energy focused on Alaska," he said.
"I know it's a tough call for a lot of people because there are a lot of emotions around this election, and I recognize that," Begich said.
Begich said that even if re-elected, Stevens would not be able to serve. "The fact is, even if elected his own minority leader has said he has 100 percent likelihood not to be seated, that he will be expelled from the Senate," Begich said.
But that's not exactly what Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said.
McConnell said that if Stevens 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." Stevens' claim is that he'll be vindicated through the appeals.
Stevens has alluded to the possibility that if he loses on appeal, he could then resign so there would be a special election giving another Republican a shot at the seat.
That's a scenario talked up by the state Republican Party, which says conservatives need to vote for Stevens to at least send it into overtime instead of just handing it to the Democrats.
Stevens said in a KTVA Channel 11 online debate that he's fighting for re-election not just for himself, but because he believes a Republican should have the seat. "When the appellate process is over, I will accept the result, good or bad, and do what's best for Alaska and the Senate. I am bruised but not beaten; my integrity will be vindicated," Stevens said.
Senate Republicans including minority leader McConnell have said Stevens should resign. So has Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee, and her running mate, John McCain.
Stevens, in his meeting with the Fairbanks paper's editorial board, dismissed that as "statements made on the trail, in the heat of battle." Alaska's junior senator, Republican Lisa Murkowski, was more critical of Republicans turning on him.
"For all of them, it's a very close election. I think they're looking to their own political skin. If it helps them in their effort to gain re-election, they will, unfortunately, throw Ted under the bus," she said.
Begich, 46, has not called on Stevens to resign, but the state Democratic Party has. In Anchorage, the Democratic Party invited faith leaders to meet with the press Thursday and talk about the need for politicians to have a moral compass in the wake of the Stevens verdict.
"Trying to serve the state while appealing something of this nature is going to be very, very difficult," said Dianne O'Connell, a retired Presbyterian minister.
But one of the speakers, Rev. Dr. William Greene of Eagle River Missionary Baptist Church, offered a somewhat surprising message, given that it was a Democratic event. Greene told the press he has no reason to mistrust Stevens and that plenty of innocent people are wronged by the court system.
Both Stevens and Begich will be barnstorming the road system for votes in the final days of campaigning. Stevens has a rally in Soldotna today and is going back to Fairbanks on Saturday. Begich is in Juneau today for his own rally, then goes on a campaign swing through the Kenai Peninsula on Saturday.
Both sides have post-conviction advertisements running on TV and radio. Stevens' say it should be up to Alaskans, not an Outside jury, to decide whether he's fit to serve the state. Begich's say now that a verdict is in, it's time to move on.
Begich is pitching himself as pragmatic and a centrist. He told BP employees he had some concerns about the way the state increased taxes on the oil industry last year.
Begich said he couldn't answer if the tax increase, which was supported by Democrats in the Legislature as well as Palin, went too far. But he said the state didn't take the right approach and suggested it was done in a punitive spirit.
"This was kind of like, let's just jam it on you and end of story, you're going to pay," he said.
One of the BP employees Begich spoke with in Anchorage, a man who also builds homes, complained Begich raised property taxes so much that he believes it "has hindered people from actually building houses and building larger houses."
Begich disagreed the tax was slowing home building. He said property taxes aren't as big a proportion of the budget as before he came to office, and the growing city has more police officers and fire stations, as well as improved snow removal.
"That doesn't come for free," Begich said. "But you get something for it."
The Associated Press and Daily News reporter Kyle Hopkins contributed to this story. Find Sean Cockerham online at adn.com/contact/scockerham or call him at 257-4344.
Candidates square off
The heavyweights met face to face for the final time Thursday. Incumbent Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young squared off against his Democratic challenger, Ethan Berkowitz, and incumbent U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, a Republican, tangled with his Democratic challenger, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich. They talked about corruption trials and whether Stevens should resign, how Congress might cut your energy bills and save the economy, and whether Gov. Sarah Palin is ready to step in as president of the United States. On that last one Young and Stevens say Palin's up to the top job, Berkowitz said her opponents are more qualified, and Begich left it to voters. To read what the candidates said about all the issues and about each other, visit our politics blog at adn.com/alaskapolitics.