Alaska governor's race: Candidates create distance from Sarah Palin

Voters are sizing up the field in the Alaska governor's race. Do they want a break from Sarah Palin's policies, or just her polarizing style?

By , Correspondent

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    Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell gave a speech in January. He and his challengers have paid close attention to style ahead of summer primaries.
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Sean Parnell, Sarah Palin's soft-spoken successor as Alaska's chief executive, is so famously deficient in charisma that he's been nicknamed "Captain Zero" and "the Oatmeal Governor."

For an Alaska governor these days, those nicknames might be considered compliments.

After two years in which Ms. Palin shot to a national ticket and international fame, abruptly resigned her office, and emerged as a wealthy but polarizing celebrity, Alaskans appear eager to embrace the boring in their politicians. What's unclear – and what this November's gubernatorial election will reveal – is whether voters want that change to come with a shift in substance, not just style.

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Governor Parnell is seen as "bringing a calming presence to the state of Alaska," says Gerald McBeath, a University of Alaska political scientist.

Indeed, ahead of the August primary, Parnell is emphasizing his work-a-day public-service résumé. "As a person who served in the legislature – four years in the House, four years in the Senate, as a Senate Finance co-chair for two of those years – I know the process," he said on a recent radio call-in show. "I'm engaged in it, and I'll continue to be engaged."

His message sets him apart from Ms. Palin, whom many here saw as "disengaged" from state government even before she became the Republican vice presidential nominee.

Parnell's challengers, however, say his changes do not go beyond style.

"The world around us has changed. Alaska has changed tremendously with the economy in the last year. But I haven't seen the policies change," says Republican Ralph Samuels, a former state House majority leader and Parnell's most immediate competitor.

Mr. Samuels was an early critic of Palin's push for higher oil taxes, a new system that the companies say has increased their tax payments to the state as much as fourfold, and of her no-negotiations strategy for promoting an elusive North Slope natural-gas pipeline, which he considers doomed to fail.

Palin's crusade against Big Oil was part of a shortsighted philosophy that will hurt Alaska in the long run, says Samuels, whose candidacy is embraced by much of the state's business community. Parnell has defended the oil-tax policy, but wants to modify it to broaden the availability of credits.

Palin has yet to reference the oil-tax debate or growing gas-pipeline pessimism from Facebook or Twitter or in any of her speeches in the Lower 48. But the issues are expected to be important in the campaign.

That part of her legacy has its defenders, including Democratic state senator and gubernatorial hopeful Hollis French. Mr. French is seen nationally as a Palin antagonist because he managed the legislature's investigation into "Troopergate," the controversy over the former governor's alleged use of her position to pursue a family vendetta against a former brother-in-law. But he dismisses that image as "a caricature."

French says the new tax system, backed by both Palin and Democratic legislators, was needed to ensure that the state receives fair compensation for extraction of a public resource.

Other gubernatorial candidates are also focusing on energy, honing wonky messages that address long-term challenges Alaska faces as its lifeblood oil fields dry out.

Ethan Berkowitz, a Democrat and former House minority leader, is proposing a transition to a royalty-only system, eliminating oil-production taxes entirely – a change he argues will ultimately benefit Alaska by encouraging new investment in an aged basin.

•Former state trade official and executive Bob Poe, another Democrat, proposes that the state build its own pipeline to Fairbanks to resuscitate dimming prospects for North Slope natural- gas development.

•Republican Bill Walker, an Anchorage attorney and former Valdez mayor, is focusing on securing an "All-Alaska" gas-pipeline project that would allow for shipments of liquefied natural gas from Valdez.

Palin's name rarely surfaces on the campaign trail, candidates say. "It's almost like she's completely gone from the state scene, or that's how it feels," French says.

Even if gubernatorial candidates don't mention her, Palin continues to cast a shadow over Alaska politics.

Lawmakers are considering several bills introduced in response to various Palin controversies that would tighten administrative ethics rules, improve public-records management, limit government activities by a governor's family members, and even mandate that the governor be on duty in Juneau, the state capital that Palin famously snubbed in favor of her hometown of Wasilla.

Some say new rules are not urgently needed because Alaska is unlikely to see new Palin-style controversies, such as the deep involvement of her husband, Todd, in government affairs. Others say ethics questions should be tackled now, before there are repeat problems.

"The Palins really crossed lines that everybody thought were over the horizon," says state Rep. David Guttenberg, a Democrat pushing legislation to require future governors and lieutenant governors to foot the bills when family members accompany them on business trips – a response to Palin's habit of securing state-paid travel for her children on trips of dubious public purpose. "She's not here anymore. It's easier to address it because there's not a personality in the room," Mr. Guttenberg says.

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