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If Republican Lisa Murkowski wins in Alaska, will her politics change?

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) of Alaska is likely to hew to her more centrist roots, analyst say, if she becomes the official winner of the race. State officials start counting write-in ballots Wednesday.

By Yereth RosenCorrespondent / November 8, 2010

This Nov. 2 file photo shows Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) of Alaska (c.) as she speaks with media in Anchorage, Alaska, following early election returns showing write-in candidates with a 5 percent lead in the vote.

Michael Dinneen/AP/File

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Anchorage, Alaska

If Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) does indeed emerge as the official winner of the US Senate race in Alaska, what kind of Republican will she be?

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Her bruising campaign to keep her seat, conducted via a write-in candidacy after she lost the GOP primary to tea party-backed Joe Miller, appears likely to shift Senator Murkowski more to the center – a Republican perhaps more akin to Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine than to the conservative Sens.-elect Rand Paul of Kentucky or Mario Rubio of Florida.

That's because she owes her apparent reelection to big support from Alaska Natives, who are usually reliable Democratic voters, as well as some Democrats and environmentalists who voted for Murkowski rather than the Democratic candidate in a bid to prevent Mr. Miller from winning.

“I think she saw that’s clearly what would bring her back to office. That has to register with her,” says Bob Poe, a former Democratic candidate for governor and a longtime player in Alaska business and politics.

Mr. Poe and other pro-Murkowski Democrats are relieved at Murkowski's announcement that she no longer wants to be part of the Republican Senate leadership team. Serving in that role over the past two years was “a little bit restrictive,” pushing her to the right of the positions she had taken earlier in her career, Poe says. “I think she wants to be more who she is.”

That would be the Murkowski of her early years in the Senate, when she was considered a swing vote like the two moderate Republican senators from Maine, and of her time as a centrist state legislator who championed a steep increase in alcohol taxes, a bipartisan fiscal strategy to try to wean Alaska off oil money, and liberal positions on social issues.

It would include a temperate stance on global warming and how to grapple with it – an issue of major concern to many Alaska Natives.

Take Shishmaref, an Inupiat Eskimo village perched on thawing, eroding permafrost. Residents there went heavily for Murkowski: 154 votes to Democrat Scott McAdams's 21 and Miller's 15.

Those who live in Shishmaref – considered a poster child for global warming because of the changes to the Arctic sea and land that threaten it – know Murkowski as a “friend for a long time,” trust her, and are grateful to her for taking their climate problems seriously, says resident Albert Ningeulook.

They remember in particular her visit to the village with the late Sen. Ted Stevens in 2008 to check on efforts to beat back the swift advance of the Chukchi Sea, Mr. Ningeulook says. “It gave us hope as residents that climate change could be dealt with, or we could live despite it,” he says.

Siding with Alaska Natives combating changes in a warming Arctic puts Murkowski at odds with conservative forces in her party who oppose curbs on carbon emissions – or who reject the idea that climate change is human-caused. It is only one of several Murkowski stances that conflict with conservative party positions.

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