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Sarah Palin endorsement: Did her support for Lisa Murkowski's rival matter?

Sarah Palin endorsed Joe Miller, a 'tea party' candidate expected to lose by a wide margin, in Alaska's GOP Senate primary. But Miller has a slight lead as absentee ballots flow in. Just how influential is Sarah Palin?

By Becky BohrerAP / August 26, 2010

Sarah Palin's endorsement of Joe Miller, a lawyer with little name recognition just months ago, may have vaulted him to a win in Alaska's GOP Senate primary. If Miller, who is ahead as absentee ballots are tallied, does pull off a victory, it will reinforce Palin's image as a powerful figure in Republican politics and a force to be reckoned with come the 2012 presidential election.

Erik S. Lesser/AP/FILE

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Anchorage, Alaska

Sarah Palin has emerged as a key figure in an Alaskan Senate primary race so close that it will now be decided by absentee ballots.

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Heavily favored Sen. Lisa Murkowski watched the surprising returns showing a tight race Tuesday night, becoming painfully aware of both Palin's impact and growing anti-government sentiment.

With all precincts reporting, the Republican senator trailed conservative lawyer Joe Miller by 1,668 votes Wednesday, leaving both hoping that uncounted absentee ballots will give them the victory.

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The state sent out about 16,000 absentee ballots, and about 7,600 had been received by Monday, but they are not part of the tally. Absentee ballots postmarked by election day can be received for up to 10 days after the election, meaning the count of outstanding mail-in votes won't begin for several days.

Regardless of the final outcome, the primary is an indication of the influence Palin wields in midterm elections as she looks ahead to a possible White House bid in 2012. She had been on a losing streak as of late in her role as "Mama Grizzly" kingmaker, but that seems to have changed with wins in other primaries Tuesday and the possibility of Murkowski losing.

The race is the latest chapter in a long-running political saga between Palin and the Murkowski family dating back to 2002, when then-Gov. Frank Murkowski appointed his daughter to the Senate and bypassed the up-and-coming Palin for the position. Palin routed Frank Murkowski four years later in the primary on the way to her becoming governor, and now she may have helped derail the career of his daughter.

The women have occasionally clashed since then on the issue of health care reform and Palin's decision to resign as governor last summer. They have denied any bad blood, but that didn't stop the potshots in this latest race, including attacks on Murkowski on health care that the senator said were horribly misleading and false.

Murkowski on Wednesday declined to discuss what kind of role Palin might have had on the race.

Pollster Marc Hellenthal, who often works with Republicans, lays the blame for Murkowski's predicament on her failure to respond to the barrage of negative ads by the Tea Party Express.