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Murkowski Gains in Bid for Party Nomination, Absentee Vote Tally Shows

Alaska U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski gained ground on her Republican primary challenger as election officials began counting absentee ballots to determine whether she becomes the latest candidate to lose to a Tea Party-backed newcomer.

Murkowski is now 1,210 votes behind lawyer Joe Miller, according to updated figures released today by the Alaska Division of Elections in a count that won’t be completed before next week. Last week Miller, a Gulf War Army veteran endorsed by former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, had a 1,668-vote lead out of more than 92,000 ballots cast in the Aug. 24 primary.

The tally includes 9,000 additional votes and is being updated as the counting continues. Division of Elections Director Gail Fenumiai had said officials today would count more than 15,000 absentee, early and questioned ballots.

“We don’t quit in the fourth quarter,” Murkowski spokesman Steve Wackowski said in an e-mail today.

Miller spokesman Randy DeSoto said, “So far it’s tracking pretty much as the election day has gone, so we’re still feeling pretty good.”

Murkowski, 53, who followed her father into office, will have a difficult time finding an alternative route to the Senate if she loses the primary. Alaska’s Libertarian Party has ruled out allowing her to run on its ticket. She could run a write-in campaign, a strategy that is rarely successful.

Tea Party Candidates

Murkowski, the Senate’s No. 4 Republican and one of its 17 women, is at risk of becoming the latest in a series of candidates who were backed by Republican leaders yet rejected by primary voters. Tea Party candidates have beaten party insiders in Nevada, Kentucky, Colorado and Utah, while Republican Florida Governor Charlie Crist dropped out of his party’s senatorial primary contest to run as an independent.

Jennifer Duffy, a Senate campaign analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said Murkowski didn’t take Miller’s candidacy seriously enough. She raised 20 times as much money as Miller, though she was reluctant to run negative political ads like those seen in other races even after “Miller said a lot of things about her record during the primary that, to be kind, stretched the truth,” Duffy said.

“When you know this is an election cycle that does not favor incumbents,” Duffy said that “you take absolutely nothing for granted, and I think Murkowski took a lot for granted.”

Abortion Issue

Murkowski also was hurt by a state ballot initiative requiring teenagers to notify parents of abortions, which helped draw single-issue voters to the polls, Duffy said. While Murkowski endorsed the proposal, anti-abortion groups have criticized her positions on other abortion-related issues. The proposal was approved with more votes than either Murkowski or Miller received.

Leaders of Alaska’s Libertarian Party voted unanimously last weekend to rule out allowing Murkowski to run on its ticket because they considered her views incompatible, said state party vice chairman Harley Brown.

No matter who wins the party’s nomination, the seat is likely to remain in Republican hands. Republican voters outnumber Democrats in Alaska, and Democratic nominee Scott McAdams has raised less than $10,000. The national Democratic Party also is focusing on other, more competitive Senate races.

Fenumiai said ballots must be postmarked by Election Day and arrive within 10 days if mailed within the U.S. and 15 days if sent from abroad, which means officials will continue to collect ballots until early next month. She said officials would have a revised estimate of the number of outstanding ballots later today.

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian Faler in Washington at bfaler@bloomberg.net

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