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Begich leads Stevens in latest tally

Sean CockerhamMcClatchy-Tribune News Service
Early votes and absentee votes were counted at the Alaska Division of Elections in Anchorage on Wednesday, November 12, 2008. Roughly 90,000 votes, about a third of the total vote, are yet to be counted. Question ballots will be counted on Friday and Saturday. Bill Roth

Mark Begich made a dramatic comeback Wednesday to overtake Ted Stevens for the lead in Alaska's U.S. Senate race.

Begich, who was losing after election night, now leads Stevens by 814 votes -- 132,196 to 131,382 -- with the state still to count roughly 35,000 more ballots over the next week.

The state Division of Elections tallied some 60,000 absentee, early and questioned ballots on Wednesday. The ballots broke heavily in the Democrat's favor, erasing the 3,000-vote lead Stevens held after election night Nov. 4.

Stevens, a 40-year incumbent, is trying to become the first person ever elected to the U.S. Senate after a being found guilty of felony crimes.

The state still needs to count at least 15,000 questioned ballots and an estimated 20,000 absentee ballots that made it to the Division of Elections after election day last Tuesday.

Most regional elections headquarters will count their remaining ballots on Friday. But the most populous region, based in Anchorage, won't count its ballots until either Monday or Wednesday, state elections chief Gail Fenumiai said.

Begich pushed hard in the campaign for people to vote early, a factor both Democrats and Republicans said contributed to his surge. More than 9,000 of those early ballots weren't counted until Wednesday in order to give the state time to double check and make sure people didn't vote early and then come back and vote election day as well.

Many candidates prefer their supporters to vote early, taking away the potential they won't get around to it election day, and Begich would often bring it up at his rallies.

Neither candidate was around Wednesday night as the drama unfolded.

Begich was on vacation with his family "at an undisclosed location" and not available Wednesday night to comment, his campaign staff said. Begich, who is the mayor of Anchorage, also did not return a message left on his cell phone.

Stevens is back in Washington, D.C., where it was well past midnight when the returns came in. His campaign spokesman said there would be no comment on the turnaround.

Republican Party of Alaska Chairman Randy Ruedrich wasn't giving up hope for Stevens, saying Begich's advantage could lessen as the state finishes counting the early votes.

"We expect that the subsequent absentees will be more truly by mail absentees, which should be much more favorable to Republicans," he said.

But state Democratic Party spokeswoman Bethany Lesser said Begich workers are "cautiously optimistic" the lead would hold.

She noted that the election district based in Nome, which covers northern and western Alaska, has not counted any of its absentee ballots yet. Begich beat Stevens in that area on election day, just as he did throughout Bush Alaska, a traditional Stevens stronghold that relies on federal appropriations.

Stevens' loss would end an era in Alaska history that started not long after statehood, when Gov. Wally Hickel appointed him to the Senate in 1968. The Republican has never even had a close election since, often drawing just token opposition. He's had a hand in many of the laws shaping the state and was honored as "Alaskan of the Century." The state Legislature named the Anchorage airport after him, a rare honor to bestow on a politician who is still alive.

But that was before the FBI and IRS raided his Girdwood home and a Washington, D.C., jury found him guilty of lying on financial disclosure forms about $250,000 in gifts and home renovations from the oilfield services company Veco Corp.

Find Sean Cockerham online at adn.com/contact/scockerham or call him at 257-4344. Daily News reporter Kyle Hopkins contributed to this story.

Complete Alaska election coverage
By SEAN COCKERHAM
scockerham@adn.com