The three Alaska Republicans seeking to replace Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Begich in November held their first full debate Thursday evening, a two-hour slugfest at East High School before a crowd of 275 people who watched as Dan Sullivan, the candidate who's attracted the most mainstream support in the race, was put on the defensive by opponents Mead Treadwell and Joe Miller.
Sullivan, the former Alaska attorney general and natural resources commissioner, was seated between his two rivals and tried to push back as Miller and Treadwell attacked him on his Alaska ties -- or alleged lack thereof -- on his Outside financial support, and on gun control.
Miller and Treadwell directed three of the four total questions they were allotted at Sullivan, who responded with his own digs at Miller, the Fairbanks attorney and Tea Party darling, and Treadwell, the state's current lieutenant governor.
As Sullivan parried the attacks and tried to stay on message, his efforts were bolstered by emails to the media from his campaign highlighting Treadwell's own fundraising numbers, and Sullivan's record on the state's "stand your ground" law, before wrapping up with a press release with the subject line: "Sullivan Wins GOP Debate."
The audience consensus, however, seemed less clear, with Miller getting enthusiastic applause from one segment of the crowd after his closing statement and Treadwell scoring some points of his own.
All three candidates were given plenty of time for jabs at one another throughout the two-hour debate.
The debate was hosted by Southcentral women's Republican groups with the help of two local talk radio stations, which stepped in to cover the costs of the event after Alaska Republican Party officials raised questions about whether the clubs -- which lacked accounts registered with the Federal Election Commission -- would have violated federal election laws by running the debate themselves.
Miller's campaign alleged that those concerns were manufactured by establishment members of the Republican Party in concert with Sullivan, in an attempt to scuttle the debate.
The divide between Miller and mainstream GOP members was still on display Thursday evening as he criticized "the corrupt power within the Republican party" and members of both parties who "want to compromise."
"This is a country right now that is under attack in many ways," he said in his opening statement.
Sullivan, in his own opening statement, was more positive, saying the Republican Party was "one big happy family" in spite of "a little squabbling."
He fell in with both Miller and Treadwell in launching sharp attacks on "federal overreach" but also sounded more optimistic when describing Alaska and its economy -- especially in areas where he claimed to have played a role, like oil and gas.
"We are turning the corner," he said, "because we have instituted policies of less government and more economic freedom," citing the recent natural gas boom in Cook Inlet.
Treadwell came down somewhere in between, repeating themes from a recent campaign video in his opening statement when he said that "we have a government that spends too much, borrows to much, prints too much, snoops too much."
He didn't endorse some of Miller's more radical ideas, like abolishing the Internal Revenue Service, but he did attack Sullivan for the support he'd attracted from Outside GOP establishment figures like former President George W. Bush strategist Karl Rove. (An independent group with ties to Rove has run TV ads boosting Sullivan's candidacy.)
Treadwell also took a shot at the more than $50,000 in contributions to Sullivan's campaign that have come from family members and executives at an Ohio company that makes industrial products, including paint, that's run by Sullivan's brother.
"It's not your brother's Senate seat," Treadwell told Sullivan. "I sometimes feel like I'm running against a paint company from Ohio."
Other zingers included:
--Sullivan's response to a Treadwell claim that he has a "deficit" of time and experience in Alaska: Former Sen. Ted Stevens, Sullivan noted, was born in the Midwest, moved to Alaska after serving in the military, and then spent time working in Washington, D.C. -- a trajectory that Sullivan's life has echoed.
--Miller's response to a question from Sullivan that tried to pin him down on SB 21, a tax cut for oil companies passed by the Legislature last year that's intended to stimulate investment but has been criticized as a giveaway. Rather than waffling, Miller responded with a straight answer: He's voting no in the August referendum on repealing the measure.
The one thing that the candidates could agree on? The need to unseat the Democratic senator that each hopes to be running against in November.
As they posed for a photo with organizers at the end of the debate, they substituted a Republican commandment for the typical "cheese": "Beat Begich."
By NATHANIEL HERZ