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Begich, Sullivan spar over natural resources in US Senate debate

Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Begich and Republican opponent Dan Sullivan took their typical campaign themes to a new venue on Thursday, as the two squared off at a natural resources-focused debate sponsored by groups representing the mining, timber and oil industries, among others.

After Sullivan faced a tough audience at an Oct. 1 debate on Alaska fisheries, he found a much more receptive crowd at Thursday's event. He and the debate's moderator put Begich on defense in an Anchorage hotel ballroom, where equipment salesmen hawked $2 million pieces of logging machinery from booths on the other side of the room.

This was a group for whom Sullivan's oft-cited campaign talking point of "federal overreach" is a daily consideration -- and who are sharp skeptics of President Barack Obama and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

"They've tried to turn Alaska into a park," said Russ Smith, who said his machinery company's sales in Alaska have been dwindling. "We're burning up more in forest fire than we are in timber, and that's not right."

Begich got plenty of his own shots in on Thursday, repeatedly citing his own efforts to push natural resource development in the Senate, while trying to highlight Sullivan's often vague positions and stances.

Asked for his specific plans to reduce the budget deficit, for example, Sullivan responded by saying the nation needs to grow its economy, while adding that Begich, Obama and Reid had presided over a rise in the national debt.

But Begich, meanwhile, had to defend his positions on issues with more direct impact on the pro-industry crowd.

At the fisheries debate, Begich drew a "bravo" from one audience member when he declared that the proposed Pebble project in Southwest Alaska was the "wrong mine in the wrong place." On Thursday, those same remarks were carefully contextualized, with Begich arguing that a move by the federal Environmental Protection Agency to limit the scale of mining in the Pebble area does not amount to a "veto" of the project.

"I would disagree if the EPA tries to veto a project like this," Begich said. "It lays out what the conditions and mitigation requirements are -- that's what it does."

Sullivan's response was to call the EPA's move to limit mining in the Pebble area a "dangerous precedent."

"They're saying they have the authority to do this anywhere," Sullivan said. "The fact a senator from Alaska is supporting it, to me, is an abdication of responsibility."

In another curveball for Begich, the moderator asked him to explain why he'd expressed his position on any number of state issues, but not the August referendum on a new state oil tax structure. That referendum put Begich in a tight spot between two important constituencies -- the left-leaning crowd that supported the measure and the substantial bloc of more conservative, pro-industry voters who opposed it.

"There are other state issues you have given public support or opposition for," moderator John Sturgeon asked. "Why the inconsistencies?"

Begich didn't answer directly.

"I have friends on both sides of this issue. And the issue's been resolved. The public has spoken," he said.

"If you want an answer, you're not going to get it," Begich added later, as the crowd chuckled.

Other questions -- whether in their actual content or in the way that the candidates pivoted in their responses -- drew Begich and Sullivan back into their typical campaign clashes, with Sullivan doing everything he could to brand Begich as a "rubber stamp" for Reid and Obama, and Begich trying to cite each and every case where he'd bucked his party and the president.

What are the three specific policies Sullivan would support to boost flow through the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, for example?

"The most important thing we can do is retire Harry Reid as majority leader," Sullivan said.

Begich, meanwhile, cited the creation of a federal "interagency working group" responsible for coordinating energy development in Alaska.

Sullivan then hit Begich on oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- specifically, the lack of it -- and noted that Begich belongs to Reid's leadership team even though Reid once said it was one of the "joys of my life" to defeat a bill from Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens on drilling in ANWR.

Begich responded that he hasn't decided who he'd support as a new Senate leader, and noted that in the early part of his term, an amendment to drill in ANWR actually came to the Senate floor even though Reid was the majority leader at the time.

While Begich labored to distance himself from the policies pushed by Obama and Reid, those efforts failed to sway at least one attendee interviewed after the debate.

Consultant Steve Borell, a former executive director of the Alaska Miners Association -- and a vehement opponent of the limits set by the EPA in the Pebble area -- said he saw a "clear distinction" between the two candidates.

"As much as Mark wants to break away from Harry Reid and the president, he can't do it," Borell said. "If he stood up for Alaska so well, we haven't seen it."

Borell said that investors view America under Obama as a "banana republic," and added that the first question he gets from potential investors is: "What are you going to do about the EPA?"

"Because they're out of control," Borell said.

In a new twist for the U.S. Senate race, the organizers of the debate -- which included the Resource Development Council, the Alaska forest and mining associations, the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, and the Alaska Chamber -- polled audience members using a text message-based application. Audience members weren't asked which candidate they'd support, but about 40 of 150 respondents said the event influenced how they would vote in the election.

Greg Bell, a local sawmill owner and a likely Sullivan supporter, said he viewed Democrats as "big environmental supporters." But he and an industry colleague added that Sullivan couldn't count on the allegiance of everyone in the crowd, citing the advantages of Begich's incumbency.

Nonetheless, Bell added, the state has "gone backwards" when it comes to resource development.

"Now, we're down to just kind of a ghost," he said. "It's sad."