SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, a look at the latest polls in the presidential race. But first, for the first time since his indictment earlier this week, Alaska Senator Ted Stevens has spoken publicly about his legal situation and how it affects his re-election campaign this year. NPR's Martin Kaste caught up with Senator Stevens last night as he arrived back home in Alaska.
MARTIN KASTE: Seven people made it out to the Ketchikan Airport last night to greet Stevens. A small number, but they showed plenty of affection for the 84-year-old senator as he gingerly walked down the steps into the baggage claim area.
(Soundbite of applause)
Senator TED STEVENS (Republican, Alaska): Thank you all very much. Very nice. I appreciate that.
KASTE: Even as his fellow passengers milled around, Stevens was not shy about talking about his indictment.
Senator STEVENS: They have a right to come to their conclusion, but I have the right to be presumed innocent just like anyone else, you know.
KASTE: But Stevens won't talk about the specific charges against him. The feds say he concealed 250,000 dollars worth of gifts and favors from an oil services company. He says talking about the charges right now would be bad legal strategy. But Stevens is willing to talk about how his legal strategy ties in with his campaign strategy since he's up for re-election this year. Specifically, he's asked for the soonest-possible trial date.
Senator STEVENS: Well, I'm entitled to a speedy trial, and I asked for one, and I'm delighted. I think it's a good thing. That way when the voters vote, they'll be voting knowing that I've been right all along.
KASTE: Still, the earliest the trial can start is September 24. And before that, Stevens has the Republican primary election to think about. Most years, Stevens wouldn't have to worry about Republican challengers. But this year, there are six of them, and one is already running TV ads highlighting Stevens' indictment.
(Soundbite of Vic Vickers' Alaska Senate campaign ad)
Mr. VIC VICKERS (Republican U.S. Senate Candidate, Alaska; Former Assistant State Comptroller, Florida; Attorney): I'm Vic Vickers, and I'm running against Ted Stevens to stop corruption.
KASTE: But here, too, Stevens says he scored a tactical victory on the legal front. The judge in the case did not schedule any court appearances during the primary season.
Senator STEVENS: I mean, he's given me a clear deck for the primary, and I think he understood what he did.
KASTE: Stevens seems eager to get past the primary and start the trial, which already promises to be the main event in the general election campaign. It's a daring move choosing to stand trial while campaigning. But if any politician can pull it off, it's Stevens, given his deep reservoir of loyalty among Alaskans. He's seen less loyalty from his Republican colleagues in the Senate. Since his indictment, several have given away money that they received from his political action committee as if it were tainted. Stevens shrugs this off.
Senator STEVENS: It was a strange reaction, but it's happened, the same thing. There's been a lot of that going on. I call it a knee-jerk reaction, OK?
KASTE: But on the ferry between the airport and Ketchikan, support for Stevens remained strong. Joe Johnston says he still supports Stevens, as well as Alaska Congressman Don Young, who's also come under scrutiny for his ethics.
Mr. JOE JOHNSTON (Chamber President, Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce, Alaska): Alaskans better figure out how we got a lot of the things we got, and Ted Stevens and Don Young were the two people that did most of it.
KASTE: In fact, it was Ted Stevens and Don Young who were the sponsors of the famous - some say infamous - bridge to nowhere, which was supposed to go right here, between the airport and the city of Ketchikan. The scandal caused the federal funding to dry up. But these Ketchikan residents say they expect the bridge will be built sooner or later, and they hope Stevens will still be in office to help pay for it. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Ketchikan.