Palin pick shakes up Alaska politics

Laura Bowen, an attorney and political independent, was determined to vote against Republican Sen. Ted Stevens, whose chalet in this picturesque ski town is at the center of his corruption trial in Washington as he runs for re-election. She was even flirting with supporting a Democrat for president.

Then came what she calls "the Palin hit job." Democrats and some in the news media, she says, have unfairly impugned the Republican vice presidential nominee, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a woman Bowen admires deeply.

Bowen says, "The Democrat smears against Palin and the biased media coverage have made it easy for me to vote a straight Republican ticket."

She says she worries about expanding the Democratic majority in Congress and handing more power to liberals such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, since she believes Democrat Barack Obama will win the presidency.

It's not clear how many Alaskans share Bowen's sentiments, but there's no doubt that Palin's ascendancy to the VP slot has upended state politics in what had appeared to be — and may yet be — a surprisingly good year for Democrats in this solidly Republican state.

Palin's statewide approval ratings have fallen from a stratospheric 89% last year to a still high 65% last month. "Even today, Sarah has a very strong and loyal — some might even say loving and adoring — base," independent Anchorage pollster Ivan Moore says.

Palin's base is expected to turn out in big numbers, Moore says. As a result, her presence at the top of the ticket all but assures Alaska's continued spot in the Republican column for president, and it could improve the re-election chances of the state's two endangered Republican members of Congress, Stevens and Rep. Don Young, Alaska's only House member.

Stevens and Young are giants of Alaska politics; they have 75 years of incumbency between them. Over the past three decades, both men usually have won re-election handily as they used their influential committee posts to steer billions in federal dollars back home.

Both are embroiled in corruption investigations, and polls show each in a tight race with his Democratic opponent.

Stevens is being tried on charges he lied on his financial disclosure statements about renovations to his Girdwood house that were paid for by Veco, an oil services firm. Young is also being investigated as part of a Veco probe.

Michael Anderson, a spokesman for Young, says the congressman acknowledges he is under investigation but declines to talk about the details and believes he has not done anything wrong. The Stevens campaign did not respond to interview requests.

Palin on the ticket could be seen as a lifeline for the Republican incumbents, but it's not as simple as it seems. Palin hails from the Christian right wing of the party, Moore said, while Stevens and Young represent the pro-business wing.

Her campaign to clean up Alaskan politics has put her at odds with them, as when she called last year for Stevens to level with voters about the issues raised by the criminal investigation. Palin backed Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell in his primary race against Young, which fell short by 304 votes.

Nevertheless, the Democrats are treading carefully around the corruption angle. "We're not really making it an issue," says David Shurtleff, spokesman for Young's Democratic opponent, former state representative Ethan Berkowitz.

Many Girdwood residents, even those who say they sometimes support Democrats, are willing to give Stevens the benefit of the doubt. He has done a lot for the state, they say, and the house at the center of the trial is no palace. It's a nondescript ski chalet on a small lot near the Alyeska Resort. "If you drive by it, nobody would think it was a senator's house," said Randy Brandon, who runs a photography business here. Brandon hasn't read the indictment accusing Stevens of accepting $250,000 in gifts from Veco and others, but he knows this much: "He's really brought home the bacon.

"He probably made some errors, but I don't think he's a dishonest person," Brandon says.

Rebecca Braun, editor of Alaska Budget Report, a non-partisan state political journal, says she senses that "a little bit of an upsurge of sympathy for Ted Stevens could sort of swell over and help Don Young, since they're often mentioned in the same breath, and there's this feeling that its a bit of a witch hunt against 'our guys in D.C.' "

Girdwood resident John Dykstra, a teacher, doesn't see it that way, but he knows plenty who do. "The only thing that would knock Stevens off is if he was convicted," he said.