Republicans are trying to figure out if an indicted Ted Stevens is still their best chance to keep the U.S. Senate seat out of Democratic hands in November.
Former Alaska Republican Lt. Gov. Loren Leman said he's been getting calls since the indictment from people asking if he'd be willing to enter the race.
"They were concerned. To a person they don't want to see Mark Begich as the United States senator representing Alaska," said Leman. "And neither do I."
The national polling firm Rasmussen Reports on Thursday released the first poll on the race since Stevens' indictment earlier this week. The telephone poll of 500 likely voters, done Wednesday night, found Stevens trailing by double digits for the first time since the race began, by a margin of 50 percent to 37 percent. But half those polled still regard Stevens favorably and don't want him to resign from the U.S. Senate.
Stevens' first election challenge is the Aug. 26 primary, where he faces six Republican challengers. The Rasmussen poll found one of them, David Cuddy, now polls almost as well against Begich as Stevens does.
Cuddy said he's getting calls from conservative groups in Washington, D.C., who wouldn't give him the time of day before Stevens' indictment. He wouldn't say which groups, but expects they'll now be donating money to his campaign.
"Before, when Ted was perceived to be the guy there wasn't a lot of interest. Now, all of a sudden, these groups are scrambling around to figure out how to be supportive," said Cuddy, a former state legislator and scion of a local banking family.
"ROLLING THE DICE"
Leman said some people who urged him to get into the race didn't realize it's past the deadline for him to file to have his name on the ballot.
Leman said he's not interested in a write-in campaign.
There's another possible scenario. If Stevens won the Republican primary in August but dropped out of the race at least 48 days before the Nov. 4 general election, the state Republican Party could pick his replacement on the ballot. The deadline for that to happen would be Sept. 18.
But Stevens' trial is tentatively set for Sept. 24. So -- unless Stevens drops out of the race before the trial or loses in the primary -- the hopes of the Republicans could ride entirely on the verdict.
Stevens had requested the early trial, saying he's innocent and wants it over before the election.
"That means Stevens is rolling the dice, that's for sure," said Matt Moon, who is on the state Republican Party's central committee. "He and his lawyer surely think they can win the case."
Moon said he doesn't think Stevens' poll numbers look so bad for someone who was just indicted. He said the better test would be how the polling looks in a couple of weeks, after Stevens returns from Washington, D.C., this weekend and starts campaigning for the first time since the charges. Those polls could help determine if Stevens sees the race through, he speculated.
"My guess is he's going to come out swinging (on the campaign trail)," Moon said.
LOTS OF SPECULATION
Several Republicans said they hope Stevens will defend himself from the specific charges as he campaigns. Stevens has up until now refused to discuss the federal investigation, saying his lawyers advised him not to.
"For me, the best way is hopefully he can talk about it now that the other shoe has dropped, so to speak," said Anchorage pollster and political consultant Dave Dittman, who is working for the Stevens campaign.
There's a lot of speculation about who might replace Stevens on the ballot if he won the primary but left the race prior to the trial because of poll numbers or some other reason.
Names bandied about in Republican circles include Leman, former gubernatorial candidate John Binkley, Gov. Sarah Palin and Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell, should he lose his Republican primary race against Rep. Don Young.
Reporters asked Palin about the possibility this week.
"Well, I'm certainly not personally interested in filling that void and leaving my job as governor," Palin said.
Binkley said no one has spoken to him about replacing Stevens. He said he doesn't think Stevens will drop out of the race.
"Many Alaskans really are talking to me about rallying behind Sen. Stevens," he said.
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By SEAN COCKERHAM