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Senator hangs tough, stays in race

Sean CockerhamMcClatchy-Tribune News Service

Indicted U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens is pushing forward with his re-election campaign regardless of the political analysts who say he's dead in the water.

"I hope he drops out simply because I think he would suffer humiliation," said Anchorage pollster and political consultant Marc Hellenthal. "The public, given the atmosphere and given what's happened, is going to presume guilt. ... He still has, even if he is guilty, a rather distinguished career representing Alaska, and we shouldn't forget that."

Stevens, who has never had a close election race since being appointed to the Senate in 1968, says he's innocent and will fight the charges. His campaign is expressing confidence, and even detractors concede his reservoir of loyalty in the state.

The question is whether a federal corruption indictment is enough to poison that goodwill.

It's too late for Stevens to withdraw his name from the Aug. 26 Republican primary ballot, even if he wanted to. But if he won the primary and then resigned, the state Republican Party could pick his replacement for the November general election.

Stevens' campaign office was quiet Tuesday, with just a couple of young volunteers working. Ted Stevens signs were stacked up everywhere, big pictures of a smiling "Uncle Ted" on the wall. No one would comment.

The office later put out a written statement saying the campaign is "continuing to move full steam ahead." The statement said Steven's campaign office has been flooded with calls and e-mails from supporters urging the senator to press on.

'MAYBE NOTHING COMES OF THIS'

Jerry McBeath, a political science professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said he thinks an indictment this close to the election spells doom for the 84-year-old Republican.

"I would say that his career is over," McBeath said .

But former Gov. Bill Sheffield said Stevens largely built the state and is innocent until proven guilty.

"I would hope that Alaskans give him the benefit of the doubt here, let him defend himself. Maybe nothing comes of this," Sheffield, a longtime Stevens supporter.

David Dittman, an Anchorage pollster and political consultant working for the Stevens campaign, said voters were already aware of the investigation and anticipating something would happen. The indictment is almost "old news" now, Dittman said. He emphasized Stevens was charged with filing false disclosures rather than taking bribes.

"In my view, if this is their best shot, it's not good, but there's not a whole lot there," he said.

Dittman said he still thinks Stevens has a "pretty good" chance of winning re-election.

Anchorage pollster Anne Hayes also said she's not ready to count Stevens out. "There's a great deal of affection and regard that's somewhat impenetrable," she said.

MAYBE A BREAKING POINT

But Larry Sabato, who publishes the nationally watched Crystal Ball forecasts of congressional races, said Democrat Mark Begich was already leading Stevens in the polls before the indictment became public on Tuesday morning.

"Ted Stevens is not going to be re-elected," said Sabato, who directs the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "If it's Begich versus Stevens I would say it's a done deal for Begich."

Begich, the mayor of Anchorage, would not discuss the Stevens indictment Tuesday. He issued a brief statement saying "it is a sad day for Alaska."

Sabato said he doesn't think Stevens knew the indictment was coming. A Senate aide told him Stevens attended the Senate Republican Policy lunch Tuesday and was "incredibly upbeat." But then Stevens "slid out of the lunch early just after the news broke. His staff took him out the back door," Sabato said.

The national publication CQ Politics on Tuesday switched its analysis of the race from "Leans Republican" to "Leans Democrat." The publication wrote that an indictment was considered the breaking point for Alaskan loyalty to Stevens.

Stevens first faces several Republican challengers in the August primary. A poll by Ivan Moore Research last week showed Stevens with 70.4 percent of the support in the primary, with developer David Cuddy in a distant second with 20.4 percent.

"Today's news has blown a big fat hole in that," pollster Ivan Moore said Tuesday.

'UP IN SMOKE'?

Moore said he doubts Stevens can survive even the Republican primary now. Fellow pollster Hellenthal, who often works for Republicans, went even further.

"Ted's prospects for winning the primary, they obviously just went up in smoke," Hellenthal said . "It kind of opens up the Republican primary."

Hellenthal said Cuddy would be the odds-on favorite for the Republican nomination but has run a lackluster campaign so far. He said a wild card is Alaska political newcomer Vic Vickers, owner of a Florida-based maritime company, who said Monday he plans to spend $750,000 of his own money on winning the primary.

"If a guy is going to spend $750,000, you can't ignore him, and it's not like Dave (Cuddy) is a household name," Hellenthal said.

Vickers only moved to Alaska full time in January but has been coming to the state almost every year for the past 38 years. Vickers isn't known in Alaska politics but plans to start running TV ads Wednesday. Other Republicans running in the primary are Rick Sikma, Michael Corey, Jerry Heikes and Rich Wanda.

State Republican Party spokesman McHugh Pierre said the party is staying neutral in the primary. He scoffed at speculation the indictment seals a Democratic win.

"We're happy to see that Sen. Stevens says he's innocent, and we're very supportive of him as our sitting senator," Pierre said.

Read reporter Sean Cockerham on our Alaska Politics blog: adn.com/alaskapolitics or reach him at 257-4344. Daily News reporter Kyle Hopkins contributed to this story.

Photos: Ted Stevens recent gallery
PDF: Sen. Murkowski statement
Transcript: Department of Justice news conference
Video: Department of Justice press conference
PDF: Stevens' statement
PDF: Stevens indictment
By SEAN COCKERHAM
cockerham@adn.com