Republican field crowded to be next second in command

Posted: Monday, August 19, 2002

JUNEAU -- If it seems odd that four prominent Republicans would clamor for an office viewed by many politicians as a dead end job, it isn't to Steve McAlpine.

The Anchorage attorney served as lieutenant governor from 1982-90 under Democrat Govs. Bill Sheffield and Steve Cowper.

He was in office when the economy was zinging and Alaska was flush with oil money. He was in office when Sheffield faced impeachment, oil prices crashed and so did the Exxon Valdez.

Right there as second in command. He loved it.

''It is unquestionably the best job in the world,'' McAlpine said.

With no real job description other than to oversee elections and notaries public, file regulations and monitor the use of the state seal, the lieutenant governor chooses the issues he wants to become involved with, McAlpine said.

The officeholder isn't bogged down by the minutia of day-to-day state government and shares in the successes of an administration but often is forgotten when it stumbles, he said. It's a no-lose situation for any politician.

''Stop and think, where else can you think of a job where you write your own script,'' McAlpine said.

After eight years of a Democrat governor in a largely Republican state, many in the GOP express confidence their party will finally win the state's top post.

Republican Sen. Frank Murkowski is the GOP's leading contender for governor and is expected to easily win the party's nomination on Aug. 27.

That's attracted a fight within the GOP for lieutenant governor from three current and former state legislators who have all had gubernatorial aspirations.

State Senate Majority Leader Loren Leman is running hard against former House Speaker Gail Phillips and veteran Sen. Robin Taylor. All have staked their ground -- Phillips the moderate in a field of conservatives -- and have campaigned as if running for top executive.

Wasilla Mayor Sarah Palin, regarded by many in the GOP as a rising star, has cast herself as the political outsider above the divisiveness that has characterized past sessions of the Legislature.

Anchorage resident Paul Wieler also has filed to run in the Republican primary for lieutenant governor but hasn't been as high-profile as the other candidates.

Leman had raised a record $173,527 for his campaign prior to July 29, according to records from the Alaska Public Offices Commis-sion. Phillips raised $131,591 during that same period, while Taylor raised $108,287. Palin raised less than $40,000.

Despite furious campaigning and spending, none have taken a commanding lead. Leman says his polls show him ahead, Phillips claims she's leading. None are separated by more than a few percentage points and there's a large number of undecided voters, Phillips conceded.

''I see it as a dead heat right now,'' said veteran pollster Dave Dittman.

So far the race has been relatively friendly and Dittman said it's unlikely to turn mean in the closing days.

The candidates largely have run on their past experience and have talked in mostly general terms about how they would tackle the issues facing the state. All have agreed they would seek to work closely with Murkowski if he wins the governor's race.

Murkowski is expected to face Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer, the clear front-runner for the Democrat party's nomination.

Taylor recently turned up the heat, airing television commercials suggesting he would take an active role in policing state regulations.

As in earlier campaign pledges, Taylor said he would veto regulations he doesn't agree with. He can't do that, said Ernie Hall, the lone Democrat candidate for lieutenant governor.

The lieutenant governor reviews regulations and can send them back to a department for review, but his duties are largely secretarial, Hall said. Those advertisements will become an issue in the campaign if Taylor wins the nomination, Hall predicted.

Leman said he plans to take an active role in fisheries issues and be a ''cheerleader for excellence in education.''

''I view the lieutenant governor as being a partner that can offer constructive assistance,'' Leman said.

Phillips left the Legislature in 2000 to run for governor, but backed down after Murkowski revealed his plans to run.

Her stance on several issues differ from Murkowski's, most importantly is the state's chronic budget shortfalls.

Oil accounts for about 80 percent of the state's revenues, but production is now about half of its peak 2 million barrels per day in 1988.

The state Department of Revenue projects a $963 million budget shortfall next fiscal year. Alaska's $2.3 billion Constitutional Budget Reserve is expected to be drained by as early as October 2004. Higher oil prices would delay that by months and not years, said Larry Persily, deputy director for the state Department of Revenue.

Murkowski and the other lieutenant governor candidates have said increased resource extraction along with deeper cuts in state spending would bridge the gap.

''There's nothing that can come on line to fill that void in two years,'' Phillips said.

Opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling and constructing a natural gas pipeline to the Lower 48 would take seven to 10 years to complete, she said.

Phillips supports a $100 per year education head tax and the use of surplus permanent fund earnings. Increased oil drilling and a better rail and highway transportation system would bring more revenues, she said.

Phillips said as lieutenant governor, she would champion greater rail access across the state.

Dittman said a ''clean'' race will make it easier for the candidates to rally around the eventual winners on the GOP ticket.

Running unopposed for their party's nomination are Hall, Alaskan Independence candidate Daniel DeNardo, Libertarian Al Anders and Green Party candidate Diane Benson.

McAlpine said the candidates could have significant influence with the next governor, despite the relatively few office powers they hold.

''The lieutenant governor doesn't always get his way, but he always gets his say,'' he said.

The lieutenant governor assumes the top office if the governor dies, becomes incapacitated or leaves office.

Lt. Gov. Keith Miller became governor in 1969 after Walter J. Hickel left office to take a cabinet post in the Nixon administration.

Ulmer is attempting to be the first person in state history to be elected governor after serving as lieutenant governor.

The candidates are expected to hit the airwaves in the final days with campaign ads.

Phillips said she plans to spend $40,000 on electronic media -- the lion's share of her $52,000 advertising budget so far -- with campaign spots. The other candidates will undoubtedly do the same, she said.

All five Republican candidates for lieutenant governor plan to attend a televised debate Tuesday night in Anchorage. A candidates forum also is scheduled for Wednesday in Anchorage.

Leman said he'll make a slew of personal appearances and campaign stops around the state in the closing days.

''I didn't get in (the race) to finish second,'' Leman said. ''I got in to win it.''

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