The three leading contenders for the Alaska Republican gubernatorial nomination held their first major forum Friday at the party's biennial convention, while questions buzzed about other possible candidates who haven't made their intentions clear.
Convention delegates said the party has pent-up energy to throw behind the winner of August's primary election, who will vie against incumbent independent Gov. Bill Walker in November.
But they noted that the June 1 filing deadline is still nearly three months away — meaning that there's still plenty of time, and room, for more candidates to get in the race.
"There were people on that stage that Republicans could coalesce behind," said Craig Johnson, the former GOP state House member from South Anchorage. "But I'm not so sure there aren't other people coming."
Friday's forum, in a full ballroom at the downtown Hilton hotel, featured an energetic Mike Dunleavy, the former state senator from Wasilla. He got a standing ovation from about half the audience after a speech in which he declared the need to bring Walker's administration to a "quick and merciful end."
Businessman Scott Hawkins drew cheers for proclaiming that it's time for the state to start building new roads and bridges. And Nikiski state Rep. Mike Chenault, the former House speaker, told the story of his family's move to Alaska 50 years ago — in a pink Pontiac with their Chihuahua on board.
But the forum's most dramatic moment came after its last official speaker. That was when John Binkley, the former GOP state legislator and gubernatorial candidate and cruise industry leader from Fairbanks, bounded up to the stage uninvited, grabbed the microphone and declared he had an announcement to make.
Binkley, whose four children own the Anchorage Daily News, has been flirting with a run for governor, and last year gave a speech at a closed-door meeting of potential candidates and GOP donors.
The crowd went silent. Binkley said: "Mr. chairman, fellow Republicans. There is a blue Ford … that's in the fire lane. You're going to get towed if you don't get out there and move it."
Laughter erupted. Then he sat down.
In an interview afterward, Binkley didn't declare his intentions, noting that there's still plenty of time before the filing deadline. But he said one of the things he's thinking about is the impact of a candidacy on his family.
"There's a lot more to consider besides just my own personal desire," he said.
Another subject of speculation, according to GOP chairman Tuckerman Babcock, is former Gov. Sean Parnell, who's now working as an attorney and consultant in Palmer. Parnell, in a brief phone interview Friday, professed no interest in running for his old job, though he also didn't rule out the idea.
"I am making no plans to run for governor in 2018," he said. "I have made none and I'm making none."
The Alaska GOP has been smarting since 2014, when Parnell lost his re-election bid to Walker. Walker is a lifelong Republican who dropped his party registration to join his campaign with Democrat Byron Mallott, now the lieutenant governor.
Republicans are now eager to line up behind a nominee, said Suzanne Downing, a former speechwriter for Parnell who now runs a conservative news website, Must Read Alaska. While there's time before the filing deadline, she said, people are starting to get tired of waiting for alternatives.
"They're ready to make their choice," she said. "Over this month, a lot of people could line up."
Convention delegates will vote Saturday on statewide candidate recommendations, Babcock said. Anyone who draws support from more than 35 percent — and that could be more than one candidate — will get access to GOP voter data and other assistance from the party, Babcock said.
Still, some people, particularly business figures, are holding out to see if other candidates will enter the race, said Curtis Thayer, a state agency head under Parnell who now runs the Alaska Chamber.
Dunleavy is currently the only GOP candidate with a super PAC supporting him, and he raised, by far, the most cash last year from individual donors. But he's also not well-known by business figures, Thayer said.
"There is definitely a desire to have a candidate that is known within the business community," Thayer said. "Everybody, I think, is still sizing up the candidates that have filed. But clearly, I think there's a lot more people sitting on the fence today than there have been in any Alaska gubernatorial campaign in the last several election cycles."
For his part, Babcock, the GOP chair, said he's encouraging potential candidates to get into the race as soon as possible.
"Every day that goes by makes it harder and harder to have a viable campaign," he said.