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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 Yereth RosenCorrespondent / April 12, 2010

Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell gave a speech in January. He and his challengers have paid close attention to style ahead of summer primaries.

Chris Miller/AP


Anchorage, Alaska

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."

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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.

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.