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With big campaign war chest, Murkowski forges toward 2016

PALMER -- The senior U.S. senator for Alaska needed a beer.

At the Palmer Alehouse, as Lisa Murkowski mingled with veterans, military spouses and a couple of industry lobbyists, a campaign volunteer scrambled to find her a cold beverage.

"Get her a raspberry wheat," said the alehouse's owner, Matt Tomter.

Working her way through a sizable crowd on a sunny evening in the Matanuska Valley, Murkowski could afford to relax a little.

Fifteen months before she's up for re-election, she's sitting on a $2.3 million campaign bank accountwith no announced credible challenger or, really, even a rumored one — from her own Republican Party or elsewhere.

Former GOP Gov. Sean Parnell? "Not thinking about it at all," he said by email, brushing off an interview request. Wasilla State Sen. Mike Dunleavy, who floated the idea of a Republican primary candidacy this spring? Radio silence.

Joe Miller, the tea party Republican who upset Murkowski in the party's 2010 primary before losing to her in the general? He demurs, saying in an email punctuated by a smiley face that the decision is up to his wife.

Former Democratic Sen. Mark Begich, meanwhile, won't answer, but his associates say he's unlikely to run.

All of which seems to point toward Murkowski, who will also have the backing of her national party, coasting toward an easy re-election.

"I actually don't think anybody's going to be able to stop her, except for one person: Lisa Murkowski," said Jim Lottsfeldt, an Anchorage political consultant unaffiliated with Murkowski's campaign. "She's going to have to shoot herself in the foot, because I don't think they're going to be able to take her down."

Aggressive fundraising

In Palmer on Thursday, with a band playing and waiters serving up small plates of free pasta, Murkowski's strategist and campaign coordinator nursed their own beverages and appeared just as preoccupied with the score of a pre-season football game as with lining up supporters from the deep red Mat-Su.

The casual nature of the event, however, belies just how seriously Murkowski is taking her re-election — starting with the fact that Palmer was the third community outside Anchorage where she's been for her campaign since the start of the Senate's summer break.

After being caught flat-footed and losing the 2010 primary to Miller, Murkowski's approach this time has been more careful.

Scott Kendall, her campaign coordinator, began working on the re-election effort this spring, along with Virginia-based strategist Mike Dubke. Extra help has come from members of Murkowski's Senate office staff.

She's been aggressively fundraising, with ads up on Facebook for months. Then there are events like the one in Palmer, aimed at connecting her with potential primary voters.

Her campaign is already operating as if it has a challenger, in the event one enters the race like Miller did.

Miller didn't announce his campaign until April 2010 -- and the filing deadline for the 2016 Senate primary doesn't come until June 1.

"I would love it if nobody got in the race at all," Kendall said. But, he added: "Do I know who will come out and file on May 29? No. I'm preparing like a credible candidate will file on that date."

'I don't want a RINO'

As a moderate Republican senator — often rated among the least conservative members of her party — Murkowski's obvious challenge is the primary.

Her choice of location for Thursday's event was no accident, affording her an opportunity to meet with Valley conservatives like Mike Coons and John Duffy.

The two were chatting as they waited for Murkowski to show up. At the very least, said Duffy, a U.S. Army veteran from Wasilla, he knew the beer at the alehouse would be good. He said he wanted a word with Murkowski to remind her to vote for what's right and not what her party leadership demands.

Duffy said the senator buckled from what he described as common-sense conservative principles in her vote earlier this year to fully fund the Department of Homeland Security — instead of allowing a partial shutdown of the agency over an immigration dispute with President Barack Obama's administration.

"My impression was she could be swayed and maybe go with the larger majority of the party, and not upset the apple cart," said Duffy, 57. "I'd like to see her step out."

Coons, a conservative activist wearing camouflage suspenders, a beard and a hat that said "dysfunctional veteran," was more forceful. He voted for Joe Miller in 2010 and said he would vote for Dunleavy, a social conservative from Wasilla, if Dunleavy ran in the 2016 primary.

"I don't want a RINO," said Coons, 63, using the acronym for a "Republican In Name only."

Coons said he showed up to ask Murkowski about "this latest stupidity with Planned Parenthood," referring to a controversy over secretly recorded videos that show doctors for the organization talking about payment for fetal tissue and organs from abortions.

Coons said he wanted to see if Murkowski would say "not 'no,' but 'hell no' to Planned Parenthood."

"That's what I want to find out," he said.

Murkowski's campaign argues that she boosted her standing with conservatives by helping Republican Dan Sullivan in his successful bid last year to unseat incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Begich.

But Sullivan, whose campaign strategist Murkowski hired this year, has been carving out a more conservative record in the Senate, and the two senators haven't always aligned with their votes.

Coons said he knew he could trust Sullivan to buck the instructions of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Murkowski? Not so much, he said.

"I want a conservative, and that's what I like about Dan," Coons said.

Planned Parenthood vote

Democrats argue that Murkowski is weak on her right flank.

Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, insists Murkowski is "vulnerable to a primary challenge" and says his party has plenty of time to find a credible candidate.

In a phone interview, Barasky noted that Sullivan didn't announce his campaign for the Republican nomination until 10 months before the party's primary.

"I get that the dynamics are not in our favor, but it's far too early to just make any kind of equivocal statement on the Democrats' chances," Barasky said.

In the general election, Murkowski will have to reconcile her appeal to the conservative primary electorate with a broader spectrum of voters in November of 2016.

That tension was already on display in a conversation she had Thursday with a pair of women from Planned Parenthood.

Last month, Murkowski cast a vote in favor of considering a bill that would have cut about $500 million in federal funding for the group.

The vote failed. But Murkowski said in a statement afterward that had it passed, she'd planned to offer an amendment that would preserve funding, launch investigations and take away federal money from any Planned Parenthood branches that had "engaged in any illegal and reprehensible behavior."

Murkowski said later that she didn't support Congress' "sledgehammer approach" of cutting off federal funding entirely.

But Kenni Linden, 27, a Planned Parenthood field organizer, said she still wanted to hear Murkowski say she'd keep backing the group's work and not let a dispute over funding risk a government shutdown.

"We wanted to hear that she will continue to support Planned Parenthood," Linden said after speaking with Murkowski. "She said she will not let a government shutdown happen."

Asked if the two were Murkowski supporters, Linden hesitated. But her companion, Kaitlyn Roberts, 23, nodded her head yes.

"She's wonderful to talk to," Roberts said. "She listens."