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After conviction, Sen. Stevens faces his biggest political fight

The Alaska Republican faces an uphill battle to win a seventh full term.

By Yereth RosenCorrespondent / October 28, 2008

U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska left the US Federal Courthouse in Washington Monday after being found guilty on corruption charges – a verdict that could help Democrats expand their control of the Senate in the Nov. 4 election.

Hyungwon Kang/Reuters

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Anchorage, Alaska

Never one to back down from a brawl, Sen. Ted Stevens is now in the biggest fight of his long political life.

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Convicted Monday of concealing gifts from politically connected associates, the Alaska Republican has one week to save his campaign for reelection in a race in which he had caught up with his Democratic opponent in the polls.

If he wins, he still must face his Senate colleagues, who have the power to expel him. If he loses, it would sweep in a new generation of political leaders in Alaska. Nationally, Senator Stevens’s felony conviction already constitutes a blow to the Republican Party, already reeling in the polls because of an unpopular president, an increasingly severe economic slump, two wars, and a slew of corruption scandals that have forced a handful of GOP senators and congressmen to resign or retire in the past three years.

The combative Stevens vowed to press on with his campaign to win reelection and clear his name.

“I will fight this unjust verdict with every ounce of energy I have,” he said in a prepared statement after a federal jury in Washington convicted him on all seven counts he was charged with, which could mean a prison term of up to 35 years. “I am innocent. This verdict is the result of the unconscionable manner in which the Justice Department lawyers conducted this trial. I ask that Alaskans and my Senate colleagues stand with me as I pursue my rights. I remain a candidate for the United States Senate.”

But it is an uphill battle, even with his outsize political clout and large following among Alaskans.

“What? He’s found guilty and there’s a sympathy thing?” says Anchorage pollster and political consultant Ivan Moore. After Stevens’s indictment in July, he fell 20 points behind his Democratic opponent in the polls. Then voters’ doubts about the validity of the federal charges against the senator, combined with a series of effective pro-Stevens campaign ads, turned the race back into a dead heat. In Moore’s last poll, Stevens was only one point behind.
With the jury’s verdict in, however, voters will follow their lead, Moore says.

Stevens’s opponent, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, has largely avoided mentioning Stevens’s legal woes. Instead, he portrays himself as part of a new generation of leaders ready to guide Alaska into the future, offering a new consensus-building approach that contrasts with Stevens’s legendary brawling style.

But minutes after Monday’s verdict, in closing remarks at the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce candidate forum, Mayor Begich weighed in. Although Stevens started his service in Washington with good intentions, he said, “I believe that over the last 40 years his judgment got a little cloudy.” Begich also told local reporters after the forum that the conviction was a sad turn for Alaska. “This has been a very difficult year for Alaska, and a long year,” he said, alluding to an ongoing corruption investigation that has already sent three former state legislators to prison and netted guilty pleas from several other formerly powerful figures.

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