Ted Stevens Runs For Re-Election From A Distance

The federal corruption trial of Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens is scheduled to continue Monday, after the judge nearly declared a mistrial because of a series of mistakes by the prosecution.

It was the latest wrinkle in a case that has fascinated Stevens' constituents back home, where he is running for yet another term.

Stevens has cruised to re-election for four decades — often with 70 percent of the vote. But this year, things are different. Many onetime supporters have soured on him.

Alaskan Dave Conrad is one of those who have changed their minds about Stevens. "He's above it all. He's above the law," Conrad said. "It's time for a change."

It doesn't help Stevens' chances that he's stuck in a Washington courtroom, while back home, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is running political ads like this one:

"Until seven weeks ago, only 10 serving senators had been indicted. Ted Stevens is the 11th," the ad goes.

Two months ago, the Justice Department charged the Republican senator with failing to disclose $250,000 worth of gifts and favors from the oil industry — favors that allegedly included freebies in a home remodeling job.

Stevens says he can't talk about the charges until the case is over. Instead, he's also running ads, reminding Alaskans of the federal largess he has brought them over the years.

"Thankfully, Sen. Stevens stepped in to help fund 145 clinics across the state to provide health care to all Alaskans," the ad says.

Alaskans Need Personal, Political Touch

But ads can only do so much in a state that thinks of itself as a collection of small towns and villages. So Stevens' campaign is trying a new technique by inviting voters to join a teleconference between the senator and anybody who wants to ask him a question.

Voter Michael Quarrella describes the teleconference calls people have been getting around dinnertime. Stevens can have a "chat" with hundreds, maybe thousands of voters at once — in other words, a good chunk of this state's small electorate.

But Quarrella says the experience is not always satisfying. "I stayed on for almost an hour. The one time that I did get on, and I never got to talk to anybody!" he says.

Stevens' Rival For Senate

Quarrella prefers to see a candidate in person, which is why he was recently at a local middle school for a town meeting with Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich. Begich is the Democratic candidate for Senate — and he's the most serious threat to Stevens' incumbency since the 1970s.

Begich is a pro-gun, pro-oil-drilling, Western-style Democrat. At the meeting, he was trying to convince voters that he will be able to continue Stevens' legacy of bringing home the federal bacon, which is a major concern for Alaskans.

Begich has a slight lead in the polls, though that probably has less to do with the calculus of clout than it does Stevens' indictment. Even so, he resists talking about his opponent's legal trouble.

"I have been pushed and prodded by media on a regular basis, and it's not — he will have his challenges," Begich says. "He will have to be answerable to those. He will have to deal with those issues. And he's the only one that can."

Begich is probably smart not to stake his campaign on a trial that could very well end in a not-guilty verdict or a mistrial before Election Day. Plus, he knows some Alaskans simply don't care about the indictment.

In an Anchorage soup kitchen, Hank Langman stood up for his senator. He was one of a group of Stevens volunteers working there on a recent morning, dressed in starchy new Stevens T-shirts as they dished up breakfast.

Langman says his mission at the soup kitchen and elsewhere is to reach the "new people," as calls them — those who don't share the old-timers' appreciation of the man they call "Uncle Ted."

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