ANCHORAGE, Alaska — If Sen. Ted Stevens prevails in his tight re-election bid, he might be able to thank his reputation for bringing home the bacon.
Stevens had appeared to be trailing before Tuesday, but with nearly all precincts reporting, he held a razor-thin lead Wednesday over Democrat Mark Begich, a popular two-term Anchorage mayor.
With 99 percent of precincts reporting Wednesday, Stevens led with 48 percent of the vote, compared with 47 percent for Begich — with only about 3,500 votes separating the two.
Stevens' political future hangs in the balance with the counting of roughly 60,000 absentee ballots, as well as 9,000 early votes and questioned ballots. Those votes won't be counted for days.
Stevens was convicted last week of seven felonies for failing to disclose more than $250,000 in gifts and services from Bill Allen, a former friend and oil services company executive.
He would be the first convicted felon re-elected to the U.S. Senate. But his colleagues also could expel him, putting an end to the longest run by a Republican in the history of the Senate.
Stevens, with 40 years in the Senate, reminded voters in the days leading up to the election of his skill in steering federal dollars to Alaska, pointed out Stephen Haycox, a University of Alaska Anchorage history professor.
"Remember in the Thursday night debate with Mark Begich, he reminded us that 40 percent of all jobs in Alaska are related to the federal appropriation," Haycox said. "Alaska is sitting on a very narrow economy. If those federal jobs go away, there are not other jobs to replace them."
Stevens underscored that point in a two-minute commercial aired the day before the election. He told voters he had recently secured $200 million for the Alaska military.
A University of Alaska Anchorage study also found that federal spending has doubled in the past 20 years. The study said that in 2002 the federal government spent $7.6 billion in Alaska, accounting for one in three jobs.
Voters in the days before the election weren't likely to tell pollsters they were going to vote for a convicted felon, Haycox said, but in the privacy of the voting booth the importance of having a job and the economic well-being of the state won out.
When it came right down to it, many Alaskans probably didn't feel that what Stevens did was all that wrong, Haycox said, certainly not rising to the level of sacrificing the politician they fondly call "Uncle Ted."
The law requires Stevens to disclose any gifts valued at as little as $250 — a threshold that Haycox described as "incredibly low."
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"They are violations of law, but many Alaskans look at that and say 'wait a minute, this is not a second home or a private airplane. This is a Barcalounger, for crying out loud,'" Haycox said.
In Alaska, where oil taxes account for 85 percent of the state's general revenue, there are some Republicans who simply won't vote for a Democrat, Haycox said. That's because when it comes to regulation and taxation, Republicans and the oil industry think the same way, he said.
"We are extremely vulnerable and dependent here on federal money and oil money," Haycox said.
Stevens chose to make no public appearances or make any statements Wednesday. He was spending time relaxing with family, said spokesman Aaron Saunders.
Begich said he would try to make sure in days to come that every vote is counted. With perhaps 20 percent of votes still to be counted, Begich said the race is far from over.
"We are going to look at every single precinct," he said at a news conference.
The Stevens campaign predicted Wednesday that the senator would remain on top when all the votes are tallied.
"Yesterday, Alaskans finally had their say and the voters stood by Ted Stevens," campaign manager Mike Tibbles said in a statement.
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