Alaska Governor's Race Unconventional, as Usual

Veteran incumbent has passel of would-be successors on tenterhooks

DOES this sound like a power struggle in a third world country? The incumbent indicates he will rely on a party of his own creation for his expected last-minute candidacy. He has been feuding with his second-in-command, who launched his own official challenge for the top job. Splinter parties made up of true believers threaten to siphon off votes from the extremes.

No, it's just another gubernatorial election in Alaska. Some 13 candidates are vying for ballot spots in the Aug. 23 primary. That's a typical field in Alaska, where the small population is politically active and politics is deeply personal as well as unconventional.

``You have the official candidates, and then you have the individuals who are just interested and taking part, and you have the idiosyncratic candidates - that's not unusual in Alaska,'' said Tom Morehouse, a University of Alaska, Anchorage political scientist.

The primary campaign has been quiet so far, in part because candidates are saving their money for the possible late candidacy by incumbent Gov. Walter Hickel. He just conducted a campaign-style tour of bush villages and his press office has been pumping out notices recently of his administration's accomplishments.

Governor Hickel needs just 2,614 petition signatures and a new lieutenant-governor candidate to skip the primary election and wage another independent campaign, as he did in 1990.

Top Democratic contenders are: former Anchorage Mayor Tony Knowles, the party's 1990 nominee and considered the front-runner; former Lieutenant Governor Stephen McAlpine; and former state Senator and state House Speaker Sam Cotten.

Leading the race for the Republicans are Anchorage businessman Jim Campbell, a centrist who has briefly held elected office, and former Anchorage Mayor Tom Fink, a staunch conservative who in the past has declared environmental regulations to be Alaska's worst problem.

The Alaskan Independence Party - a fringe group that envisions Alaska as an independent nation and that won technical control of the statehouse with Hickel's 1990 victory - is also fielding a list of candidates. The favorite is Lt. Gov. Jack Coghill.

The ecological Green Party of Alaska, which has had ballot victories in some local races, is fielding Jim Sykes, who could hurt the Democratic nominee in a close November race. Mr. Sykes claims he could win 20 percent, significant in a state with no gubernatorial runoff. Hickel won with just under 39 percent of the vote in 1990.

Looming over all is the undeclared Hickel candidacy. An independent route would be nothing new to the 74-year-old Anchorage developer. First elected as governor in 1966, he left the office in 1969 to serve as President Nixon's interior secretary, and he had tried many times to regain the governor's job.

In 1990, 30 minutes before the deadline for ballot changes, he and Coghill - an arch-conservative state senator who had been unhappily paired with moderate Arliss Sturgulewski on the Republican ticket - got the chairman of the party to replace the original, little-known Alaskan Independence Party candidates with their names. Hickel poured more than $1 million - mostly his own money - into the brief, Perot-style campaign.

Hickel recently re-registered as a Republican but is sitting out the party's primary. If he makes a run, he says, he'll call himself an ``Independent Republican'' or use some other independent affiliation. On July 22, he announced that he notified the state's Division of Elections of his intent to run for re-election and that he authorized an ad-hoc ``Alaska First Committee'' - named after a Hickel slogan used to bash federal policies - to study the feasibility of his independent campaign.

He then sent out questionnaires to all registered candidates to help him make a final decision to run and to see if they are ``addressing the issues correctly.''

Campbell's campaign manager, Bill McConkey, said, ``Speaking for myself, I find the whole thing an example of arrogance beyond belief, but we are used to that from this source.''

Right now, polls show Hickel behind his main competitors.

Mr. Knowles, for one, says that voters may resent another ``stealth'' Hickel candidacy. Others, including political experts, say Alaskans don't care how candidates get on the ballot. And none of the other candidates quite match Hickel's ``unique'' Alaskan personality, Mr. Morehouse says.

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