Tea Party-Backed Miller Takes On Alaska's Murkowski

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Four more states have primary elections on Tuesday. In Alaska, Joe Miller was virtually unknown when he declared his candidacy as a Republican challenger to incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski. But then the Tea Party Express endorsed him after accusing Murkowski — the only woman in the Senate's Republican leadership team — of being "not Republican enough."

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Alaska's Lisa Murkowski is part of the Republican leadership team in the U.S. Senate, but her opponent in today's primary says she's just not Republican enough. Tea Party candidate Joe Miller has made Murkowski's conservative credentials a central issue in the campaign.

Alaska Public Radio Network's Libby Casey reports.

LIBBY CASEY: Joe Miller was little known in Alaska when he signed up to run for U.S. Senate, until June, when former Governor Sarah Palin endorsed him. That led to support from the national Tea Party Express, which says its poured nearly half a million dollars into his race.

On a recent summer morning in Fairbanks, the lawyer and Army veteran stumped for votes in his hometown parade:

Unidentified Man #1: Hi, how are you doing?

Unidentified Man #2: Hey, how are you doing?

Unidentified Man #3: Joe Miller, Alaskas conservative choice.

Unidentified Man #4: Joe Miller for the US Senate.

Unidentified Woman #1: Dont be a dumb-dumb, vote Joe.

CASEY: Miller wants to get rid of the Education Department and phase out Social Security and Medicare. He says the culture of earmarks has to end.

Mr. JOE MILLER (Republican Senatorial Candidate, Alaska): This concept that we have of senators and representatives being elected to bring back the pork is the reason that were at the point were at. Nobody has the leadership because they believe that their role is to bring back maximum revenue to constituents.

CASEY: Earmarks - bad in the pork barrel state? Thats a tough message in Alaska, which is mourning the recent death of former Senator Ted Stevens, the man loved for bringing home the bacon.

The woman whos now Alaskas senior senator, Lisa Murkowski, has tried to follow his lead, rising to become the top Republican on the Energy Committee and landing a plum seat on Appropriations. Still, in this campaign ad, Joe Miller says shes really a RINO: Republican in Name Only.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

Mr. MILLER: My opponent says one thing during the short election season here in Alaska. But then when she gets back to D.C., she sheds those views. In fact, she sheds those views more often than a moose sheds its antlers.

CASEY: Murkowski responds thats nonsense. She says her recent votes are lock-step Republican. She wants to reduce the debt, repeal the health care overhaul and protect gun rights. But she says Washington has changed around her.

Senator LISA MURKOWSKI (Republican, Alaska): My actions have not changed because I have a Republican opponent. My message has not changed. Couple years ago, there was a different administration in place that was more supportive. So I wasnt in a position of saying no quite so frequently or so strenuously.

CASEY: Murkowski was initially appointed to her seat by her father, former Governor Frank Murkowski, but she's carved out her own brand of a kinder, gentler Alaskan Republican, without the bluster or heat of her father and Ted Stevens.

Sen. MURKOWSKI: Compromise is not necessarily a bad word, a negative word. It means that you take some of the good ideas that you have to offer and some of the good ideas that I have to offer, and we try to build something that works for the whole country.

CASEY: Compromise isnt in her competitors vocabulary. Joe Miller says his hard-line ideas will save the country from an economic collapse. But even with the Tea Party endorsement, hes facing a tough battle. Anchorage Daily News columnist Michael Carey says Millers only hope is to stake out territory to the far right.

Mr. MICHAEL CAREY (Columnist, Anchorage Daily News): Hes attempting to damage Lisa Murkowskis identity as a conservative by painting her as a liberal. On the face of it this seems almost silly. But hes been able to find elements of her record, what she said about global warming or what she said about cap and trade, little snippets that he can use against her.

CASEY: The big question is whether Sarah Palins endorsement will make a difference. This is her home state, after all, but she quit its highest office. Thats left many Alaskans feeling betrayed.

Palin wont comment on her support of Miller but called him the true conservative on Facebook. When Alaskans vote on Tuesday, it may show which woman rules the roost of Alaska politics.

For NPR News, Im Libby Casey.

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