Stevens loses lead in Alaska senate race

ANCHORAGE -- The Democratic challenger to embattled Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens held a 814 vote lead Thursday as counting continued in one of three outstanding U.S. Senate races.

With Democrats holding a 57-vote control of the Senate, the outcome of the race will determine whether Democrats can clinch a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

With so much at stake, the Senate runoff race in Georgia has turned into a major national test of the two parties, with former presidential candidate Sen. John McCain making his first post-election political appearance on Thursday in the state to stump for incumbent Sen. Saxby Chambliss.

"This race may well end up being the firewall against the 60-vote majority the Democrats are trying to achieve," John Ensign, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Wednesday.

The third race, a squeaker in Minnesota, is going into a recount that likely will not be resolved until December.

The fluidity of the Alaska race is only the latest in the twist and turns over the seat held by Stevens for 40 years.

The re-election of the powerful incumbent, and longest serving Republican in the Senate, would have been a slam dunk until last month, when a federal jury in Washington convicted Stevens of lying on Senate disclosure forms to conceal more than $250,000 in gifts and home renovations from an oil field services company.

Despite the conviction, Stevens vowed to run for re-election although many fellow Republican senators have asked him to step down. He also faces likely ouster if he returns to the Senate.

Although polls showed Democratic challenger Mark Begich, a two-term Anchorage mayor, with a substantial lead before the election, Stevens ended up on election night with a 3,200 vote lead.

But as early and absentee ballots were tallied this week, Begich's deficit turned into his current slim edge of 814 votes. He now leads 132,196 to 131,382, with an estimated 30,000 ballots remaining to be counted, some on Friday and some next week.

"After watching the votes today, I remain cautiously optimistic," Begich said in a news release. "We ran an aggressive campaign, especially when it came to early voting and absentee."

Stevens' campaign did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

In Minnesota, incumbent Sen. Norm Coleman, a Republican, held a 206 vote lead against Democratic challenger Al Franken out of 2.9 million cast. The margin triggered an automatic recount.

Democratic secretary of State Mark Ritchie chose a canvassing board Wednesday that includes himself, two state Supreme Court justices appointed by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and two county judges.

The board is charged with certifying vote totals and settling differences over disputed ballots once local officials complete their recount.

The board meets Tuesday to certify the machine-counted tally before officially ordering the manual recount that will start the next day. A month later, the panel will reconvene to determine the fate of ballots challenged during the recount.

In the Georgia contest, Chambliss beat Democratic challenger Jim Martin in the general election, but failed to get more than the 50% needed to avoid a runoff.

While McCain stumps for Chambliss, the organization behind President-elect Barack Obama has been activated to help Martin.

A campaign appearance by Obama has not been ruled out, although it would come at a busy period of the transition process in Washington.

Contributing: Douglas Stanglin in Mclean, Va., The Associated Press