US Elections 2008
Alaska holds key to Democrat senate
Republican senator's legal problems could give Democrats complete US senate control.
Last Modified: 02 Nov 2008 20:59 GMT

McCain and other Republican senators have told Stevens to step down [GALLO/GETTY]

Wearing a huge, foam block of cheese on his head and the giant, green fists of the comic-book character The Incredible Hulk, Ted Stevens, Alaska's senior Republican senator, barrels unrepentant into Eddie' Sports Bar.

The man known in this state as "Uncle Ted" is, in fact, not a hulk.

He is a rather small 84-year-old, who happens to be a giant in Alaskan politics.

And he is also the man whose legal problems could hand the Democrats complete control of the United States legislative branch.

"Alaska politics is all about family," Stevens tells me in the crowded sports bar as he recounts his day's campaigning on October 31 - Halloween.

Regulars at Eddie's, dressed up in all manner of lugubrious and saucy outfits for the party, agree.

"He has done so much for Alaska, like getting us lots of oil money," says April, a waitress dressed-up as a schoolgirl with an addiction to heavy eyeliner.

A family affair

As a young politician, Stevens helped bring Alaska to statehood in 1958.

Since 1968, he has served continuously as a US senator from Alaska, funneling billions of federal dollars to his constituents, often for grandiose projects - including the Ted Stevens International airport.

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Stevens is fighting a tight battle for re-election on November 4, the day the United States will choose its next president.

He is keeping his candidacy despite being convicted last week on seven counts of hiding gifts from an oil-services company, including extensive home renovations, a massage chair and a $29,000 metal fish statue.

Stevens' rival is Democrat Mark Begich, the mayor of Anchorage and a man who avoids direct attacks on the veteran senator - such is voters' gratitude towards him.

Polls put Begich slightly ahead of the grandfather of Alaskan politics who, nonetheless, is both confident and unrepentant.

Incredibly, he denies that he was convicted by a federal court earlier in the week.

"There's not a black mark on my name yet, until the appeal process is over and I am convicted, if that happens," he told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner newspaper.

Stevens is arguing over legal complexities and nuances that are currently lost on other senate Republicans, as well as John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, and his running mate Sarah Palin, Alaska's governor.

All have called on Stevens to step down, saying he has been convicted - appeal or no appeal.

But he has refused to do so.

And in Alaska, his stance does not appear to be a major problem for many voters, who continue to admire him.

'Outside' Alaska

There is hostility in the bar towards the Washington court which convicted Stevens - as there is to the rest of the United States - referred by many in this state as "Outside" (usually spelled with a capital O).

"Outside" is a place with which not everyone has a feeling of shared history, a place where the economy is not blessed with abundant natural resources, where politics is not a family affair, without beneficent "uncles" and where meddling courts just don't understand how business is done in Alaska.

Now, in a curious twist of fate, it could be Alaska, long a Republican fiefdom, which helps give unbridled power to the Democrats in the Senate, and changes how politics is done Outside.

If Stevens loses on November 4 and other Republican candidates lose in ten or more other states, the Democrats will hold 60 seats in the upper chamber.

That would prevent the Republicans from using the threat of interminable debate to kill legislation they don't like - a tactic known as a "filibustering".

Should Stevens and other Republican senate hopefuls lose on November 4, the Democrats will become the Incredible Hulks of the Senate.

If they are working with a President Obama, Americans can expect a turbo-charged legislative agenda early in 2009.

And neither the senators nor a President Obama will need big, green, foam fists to get their way - as scary as that may seem to Republicans.

Al Jazeera
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