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Begich lead increases in race for Senate

Sean Cockerham
Division of Elections worker Sunshine Landers counts absentee and question ballots in Wasilla on Friday, November 14, 2008.
STEPHEN NOWERS / Anchorage Daily News

Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens is in grave danger of losing re-election after Mark Begich widened his lead to 1,022 votes Friday.

More than 90 percent of the votes are now counted, and Friday's count of absentee and questioned ballots could have been Stevens' best chance to make a comeback.

That's because it included all the ballots left from the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, where Stevens has enjoyed his most unwavering support.

There are about 24,000 ballots left to be counted, coming from Anchorage, Southeast Alaska and the Kenai Peninsula. The state will tally them all Tuesday.

Dallas Massie, state Republican Party district chair from Wasilla, in the heart of the Mat-Su, said he thought Friday would be a day Stevens closed the gap. The senator, however, saw Begich's lead grow by more than 200 over the margin the challenger established on Wednesday, when post-Election Day counting of absentee, early and questioned ballots began.

"It's concerning, from my perspective," Massie said.

The Stevens campaign has long gone silent, and once again Friday wouldn't comment on the race. The campaign office in Midtown Anchorage was largely deserted. The giant wall photos of Stevens were gone. So were the rows of campaign signs. All that remained was a pair of volunteers packing boxes.

Begich supporters knew the score but hesitated to show much enthusiasm, pointing out the lead is still small compared to the number of ballots left to be counted.

State Democratic Party spokeswoman Bethany Lesser said the end of counting in the Mat-Su, except for a few oversees absentee ballots, is not the last hurdle.

"I think that was where (Stevens') best bet was, but also parts of the Kenai are out still," Lesser said. "I wouldn't rule out the fact that this is likely to narrow a little still."

Begich himself was traveling Friday, returning to Anchorage from California. He said he took his wife and 6-year-old son on vacation to Disneyland and Legoland.

The Begich campaign said the race is clearly headed for a recount in early December. The campaign sent out a fundraising appeal Friday night, asking its supporters for money "to prepare for the onslaught of Republican lawyers we expect to come from the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Campaign to fight on behalf of Sen. Stevens." The Democrats have their own lawyers they need to fund for a recount.

Recent Alaska recounts, though, have resulted in little change in the final tally.

The state counted 14,508 votes on Friday. Elections officials finished off the remaining ballots from northern and western Alaska, the Mat-Su and the Fairbanks region, including the North Pole area, where Stevens is hugely popular.

Stevens has a big challenge. Tuesday's count will include more than 4,500 ballots from heavily pro-Begich Southeast Alaska.

That's more than twice what's left to tally from the Stevens strongholds of Kenai, Sterling and Nikiski. Also, ballots remain from pro-Begich Homer and Kodiak.

Most of the remaining votes, nearly 16,000, are from Anchorage and Eagle River. Begich holds a slim lead so far in those election districts. So the ballots would have to break far differently Tuesday for Stevens to gain much ground there.

Stevens has represented Alaska in the U.S. Senate since 1968. But he's trying to overcome a hurdle of historical proportions and become the first person awaiting felony sentencing ever elected to the Senate. A jury in Washington, D.C., found him guilty a week before the election of lying about gifts on financial disclosure forms.

Stevens says he's innocent and will appeal. It looked like Alaska voters would stick with him when he led by about 3,000 votes after the count on Election Day on Nov. 4. But the absentee and questioned votes have turned badly against him.

Ballot counting won't resume until Tuesday so the state can confirm the remaining ballots are bona fide. That kind of review is why the count has stretched over two weeks.

"They want to make sure every registered voter who voted an absentee or questioned ballot was truly eligible to have vote that ballot," said state elections director Gail Fenumiai.

The latest count shows Begich with 138,959 votes to 137,937 for Stevens. Alaskan Independence Party candidate Bob Bird is in third place with 12,144 votes, followed by Libertarian David Haase and nonpartisan Ted Gianoutsos.

Find Sean Cockerham online at adn.com/contact/scockerham or call him at 257-4344.

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By SEAN COCKERHAM / scockerham@adn.com