Sen. Ted Stevens is back in Alaska, where he is asking voters to re-elect him on Tuesday — despite his conviction this week on federal corruption charges.
A jury in Washington, D.C., found Stevens guilty of concealing thousands of dollars' worth of gifts from a friend of his in the oil industry. Republican presidential candidate John McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin, have called on Stevens to step down, but Stevens has no intention of going quietly.
In fact, Stevens is back on the campaign trail — and he is making a surprising assertion: "I have not been convicted of anything." He said that twice Thursday night during a TV debate. In point of fact, Stevens has been convicted, although he is planning an appeal.
"The case is still pending on the basis of motions we filed for a new trial, or for a dismissal of the case because of [prosecutorial] misconduct," he said.
Prosecutors did make mistakes during the trial, to the point of getting chewed out by the judge. But it's anyone's guess whether Stevens can get the verdict overturned.
Stevens' conviction is not something people wanted to hear about at his welcome-home rally on Wednesday night. In a hangar at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, the 84-year-old senator waded into an adoring crowd.
"I voted for you every time and nothing has changed," one supporter told Stevens, who thanked him.
Someone had printed up black T-shirts with the message, "F*#@ the Feds, Vote for Ted." Margie Johnson had one on; she doesn't think much of the jury's verdict.
"Twelve outsiders trying to pass judgment on our United States senator? I won't have any part of it," she said. "That's like in the days pre-statehood, when outsiders used to pass judgment on us."
By "outsiders," Johnson said she meant those "Lower 48, East Coast [people], whatever you want to call them — they ain't taking out our guy. We're going to stand with him."
But away from the rallies, cracks are showing in Stevens' base of support. Eddie Burke, a conservative radio talk show host in Anchorage, mocked Stevens for insisting he is innocent.
"We got prisons full of people who are on appeal. You go into a prison, put them all in one big room and ask them, 'How many of you are innocent?' I wonder how many will raise their hand?" Burke said.
Burke told listeners he could no longer vote for Stevens — even if it meant handing the election to a Democrat. Callers pleaded with him to reconsider.
There's a theory among some Republicans — more a hope than a theory — that Stevens' real plan is to get re-elected and then step down, buying time for his party to find a fresh candidate. In Alaska, it's not the governor who picks a replacement senator; state law requires a special election within 90 days. Some Republican voters would like to force that special election by electing Stevens now, but the Democratic challenger, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, says he's not worried about that kind of strategic voting.
"You know, some of these guys that are calling in, I can recognize their voice, because I'm a call-in radio guy," Begich says, "and they're part of the party machinery behind the scenes. And the fact is, Alaskans, 60 percent of Alaskans, are non-party-affiliated. We vote for the person."
But in this case, that person is "Uncle Ted." There's still so much affection for him in the state that even the Democratic challenger is reluctant to call him a felon. Begich makes allusions to Stevens' "legal difficulties," but he always stops short of calling for Stevens to step down. The Democrat says he'll leave that decision to the voters.