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updated 11/8/2010 6:44:04 AM ET 2010-11-08T11:44:04

Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski is on the cusp of vindication after waging a high stakes — and long shot — write-in campaign to keep her job.

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Initial returns show write-in ballots holding a 13,439-vote edge over GOP nominee Joe Miller, and though it's not clear how many of those are for her or will be counted as valid, she's confident enough in her winning to tell supporters that they'd "made history." The write-in count starts Wednesday in Juneau.

Story: Murkowski says she's ready to make history

Murkowski needed broad-based support — from fellow Republicans, Democrats, independents — to be successful in what was a three-way race (Democrat Scott McAdams has conceded). And while a win would return her to Washington, to the colleagues and party leaders who turned their backs on her after her humiliating primary loss to the Sarah Palin-backed Miller, it also raises questions about how she would legislate.

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Expectations are high.

Many conservatives see the support she won from labor, Alaska Native groups and Democrats as an indication she will be less likely to push for less federal spending, an overhaul of federal contracting that gives Native corporations preferential treatment and an anti-abortion agenda.

And some, like independent Bethany Marcum, feel marginalized because Murkowski labeled Miller an extremist — and Marcum shares many of Miller's limited-government views.

"I don't think I'll be heard," Marcum, 44, said.

Wake-up call?
Bob Poe, a nonpartisan who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for governor this year, hopes the last few months have been a wake-up call for Murkowski and that she'll reclaim her mantle as a moderate.

Murkowski, who shifted right after President Barack Obama took office and as her star within the GOP rose, maintains she will approach issues as they come to her. Though she plans to caucus with Republicans, she said she won't be beholden to any special interests or party — an initial sign of that perhaps coming in her decision not to try to reclaim her leadership post within the GOP conference. She voluntarily resigned it in deciding to make her outsider run.

She said she plans to listen to Alaskans "and hopefully you will recognize that I'm using intellect and judgment (and) while we may disagree on the final vote you will at least acknowledge that I gave due consideration."

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During the hotly contested campaign, Miller and Tea Party-minded surrogates like Palin sought to paint Murkowski as an out-of-touch liberal, a Republican in name only. McAdams, meanwhile, called her dangerously conservative, willing to put party over policy and apt to veer farther right if elected, out of fear of losing another primary.

Murkowski rejected both tags and cast herself as the voice for "all Alaskans," stressing the benefits her seniority could yield and willingness to work with Democrats as reasons to support her. She defended her move right under Obama and a Democratic-led Congress — a shift that included opposition to key pieces of the Democratic agenda, such as the federal health care overhaul and stimulus — as motivated by concerns of excess spending and government overreach, problems she pledged to continue fighting.

Yet, unlike Miller, she's not staunchly anti-abortion, supporting exceptions for cases including those involving rape or incest. She doesn't believe building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border is a good solution to dealing with illegal immigration. And she believes raising the eligibility age for Social Security is more acceptable than a wholesale transition out of the program.

Pollster Marc Hellenthal doesn't believe Murkowski would return to Washington with a mandate.

Video: Alaska waits for end to election cliffhanger (on this page)

"That would be a little strong, almost a little egotistical. The only reason we're doing this is because she screwed up the primary," said Hellenthal, who polled for Alaskans Standing Together, the PAC formed by Alaska Native corporations that spent nearly $1.3 million to help Murkowski win the general election.

Some Murkowski supporters, like Lori Gonzalez, of Anchorage, felt Miller's primary win was a "shock to the system" for voters who thought Murkowski would cruise to a victory over the political upstart. She saw the write-in effort as a massive do-over. "I don't really see her losing to be an option," she said.

'Collaboration'
Political scientist Carl Shepro doesn't think Murkowski has to change much, if at all.

"I would think that she was basically representing what she perceived to be the majority of Alaskans" before, he said.

Murkowski, likewise, believes she has to keep doing what she's been doing — returning to the state, meeting with voters, listening to them — but be more aggressive in her approach and make sure she truly is hearing all sides. She doesn't intend to contribute willingly to gridlock in Washington.

"One thing that I am taking away from this election, I think Alaskans want to see a level of cooperation, a level of collaboration with not just those in my conference but with other members and really working on that consensus-building so that we get the good governance," she said.

"I don't think they want me to go back and just be an obstructionist. I think they want to see me create good things for Alaska."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Alaska waits for end to election cliffhanger

  1. Transcript of: Alaska waits for end to election cliffhanger

    LESTER HOLT, anchor: We're following another kind of mystery tonight, this one of a political

    nature: Who will win the United States Senate race in Alaska ? With a pile of write -in votes being counted, determining the winner could get ugly and could last a very long time. NBC 's Kristen Welker reports tonight from Anchorage .

    KRISTEN WELKER reporting: Lisa Murkowski and Joe Miller caught in a cliffhanger. Murkowski , the most visible write -in candidate, celebrated Tuesday when returns showed the write -in ballots topped Republican Joe Miller by 13,000 votes. If she wins, she would be the second write -in candidate in US history to claim a Senate seat.

    Senator LISA MURKOWSKI: We recognize that we are not yet complete with making history, but we are poised, and it feels -- it feels pretty good.

    WELKER: How realistic do you think it is for you to win this race?

    Mr. JOE MILLER: Well, you're missing the 31,000 absentee ballots that have not been counted yet, and that's a significant component.

    WELKER: In a campaign that's been full of controversies, now another one: Which write -in ballots should officials count as legitimate? The Miller camp has argued that if Murkowski 's name is misspelled it should not be counted. Election officials have said they will be looking at voter intent. But political analysts wonder what exactly that will mean for the counting process.

    Mr. DON MITCHELL (Political Analyst): There will be attorneys on the shoulder -- on both shoulders of whoever that person is that looks at that ballot.

    WELKER: The battle has been contentious from the beginning. When Miller beat Murkowski in the GOP primary this summer, she was stunned, but defied her own party and ran as a write -in.

    WELKER: Miller was emboldened. Aligned with the tea party , he had the backing of the GOP and Sarah Palin . The race captured national headlines and saw heated debate on both sides, including an allegation that Miller used government computers for personal reasons in 2008 . Do you regret not releasing more information earlier?

    Mr. MILLER: Yeah, this is an event that occurred a couple of years ago, certainly a mistake. I learned from it.

    WELKER: The rancor reached a fever pitch when dozens of self-avowed Miller supporters signed up as write -in candidates to confuse voters. Alaskans say they've seen enough bickering.

    Unidentified Woman: We don't have chads to worry about, but we do have little circles to worry about, and we have spelling to worry about.

    WELKER: They just hope their next senator is named soon. Kristen

Photos: Election night

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  1. Ohio Gov.-elect John Kasich celebrates a victory during the Ohio Republican Party celebration in Columbus, Ohio. (Tony Dejak / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, celebrates early election returns in Anchorage on Nov. 2. With Murkowski are from left, sons Matt and Nick Murkowski and longtime friend Hope Neslon. (Michael Dinneen / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. California Gov.-elect Jerry Brown celebrates his election win during a rally with his wife, Anne Gust, in Oakland, Calif. (Paul Sakuma / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. California Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman concedes to Democrat Jerry Brown during a campaign party in Universal City, Calif. (Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Supporters of California Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman react after conceding the Governor's race to Democrat Jerry Brown during a campaign party in Universal City, Calif. (Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Terri Sewell celebrate her victory with her cousin Kindall Sewell- Murphy as the first African American woman to be elected to for the 7th Congressional District seat in Alabama, with family and friends in Selma, Ala. (Butch Dill / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. U.S. Senate candidate Sharron Angle with her husband, Ted Angle, concedes defeat to supporters at the Nevada Republican Party's election results party at the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino after she lost to incumbent U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Supporters of Nevada Republican Party Senate candidate Sharron Angle react after news projected Democratic Party candidate Harry Reid as the winner of the race for the Nevada senate seat at the Nevada Republican Party's Election Night event in Las Vegas, NV. (Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., speaks during the Nevada State Democratic election night party after defeating Sharron Angle to win re-election, in Las Vegas. (Jae C. Hong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Angela Webb of Alabama, left, and Leah Stith of Virgina react after U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was announced as the winner over Republican challenger Sharron Angle at the Nevada State Democratic Party's election results party at the Aria Resort & Casino at CityCenter in Las Vegas. In one of the nation's most closely watched races, Reid retained his seat for a fifth term against Angle, a Tea Party favorite. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. House Republican leader John Boehner breaks into tears during his speech as he addresses supporters at a Republican election night results watch rally in Washington, D.C. (Jim Young / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Supporters of Republican Senator Marco Rubio celebrate at his victory party in Coral Gables, Florida. (Gary I Rothstein / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. U.S. Senator John McCain is reflected on a teleprompter as he celebrates his victory with his daughter Meghan after defeating Democratic candidate Rodney Glassman in Phoenix, Arizona. (Joshua Lott / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Tammy Tideman of Mesa, Arizona and Carla Schwarte of Phoenix, Arizona hold "Fire Pelosi" sighn as Sen. John McCain speaks to the crowd during an Arizona Republican Party election night event in Phoenix, Arizona. (Laura Segall / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Democrat Bill White walks off the stage after addressing his election night party at the Hilton Americas Hotel in Houston. The former Houston mayor conceded defeat to incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Perry in the race. (Smiley N. Pool / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. President Barack Obama makes an election night phone call to Rep. John Boehner from his Treaty Room office in the White House residence. (Pete Souza / The White House) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Tea Party Patriots at an election night party celebrate an announcement that Republicans have gained the majority in the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, November 2. (Ann Heisenfelt / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Terri Scofield of Medford checks her email for updates from the Board of Elections as she awaits elections results at the Suffolk County Democratic Committee Headquarters in Islandia, N.Y. (Kathy Kmonicek / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand D-NY celebrates her re-election at a rally in New York. Disenchanted U.S. voters swept Democrats from power in the House of Representatives and increased the ranks of Senate Republicans on Tuesday in an election rout that dealt a sharp rebuke to President Barack Obama. (Shannon Stapleton / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Harris Blackwood, communications director for Georgia Gubernatorial candidate Nathan Deal, holds a broom, claiming a sweep for Republicans at the Georgia Republican Party's election night watch party in Atlanta. (Brant Sanderlin / Atlanta Journal & Constitution / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Republican U.S. Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell, a favorite among the conservative Tea Party movement, appears at an election night rally in Dover, Delaware. Democrat Christopher Coons won the U.S. Senate race in Delaware on Tuesday, keeping for Democrats a seat once held by Vice President Joe Biden. (Jason Reed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Michele Bachmann and other Republicans gather at the Sheraton Bloomington to await election results. (Tom Wallace / Star-Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Kentucky Republican U.S. Senate candidate and Tea Party favorite Rand Paul acknowledges supporters with wife Kelley at his election night rally in Bowling Green, Kentucky, November 2. (John Sommers II / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., arrives to celebrate his re-election with supporters at the Martin Luther King Jr. Democratic Club in New York. (Jason Decrow / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Supporters Rachel Smith, right, and Genevieve Fugere watch the returns of Democratic Mike McIntyre D-N.C., 7th House District at his election night headquarters at the Holiday Inn in Lumberton, North Carolina. (Jim R. Bounds / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Election worker Janet Smith processes ballots at the King County Elections headquarter in Seattle, Washington. Among the races and ballot initiatives here is the US Senate race between incumbent Senator Patty Murray and challenger Republican and former gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi, which is so close it could take several days to determine the winner. (Stephen Brashear / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Republican candidate for governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, right, watches election results come in after the polls closed from a hotel restaurant with her husband Michael, left, son Nalin, 9, rear center, and daughter Rena, 12, right, in Columbia, South Carolina. (David Goldman / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Florida Governor Charlie Crist thanks supporters after conceding his defeat in his campaign for U.S. Senate to Republican Marco Rubio during a campaign party in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Brian Blanco / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Diana Reiner of Lansdale, Pennsylvania, left, and Keli Carender of Seattle, Washington, gather with a group known as the Tea Party Patriots for a 'Reclaiming the Capitol' rally at the US Capitol. The group planted a "special edition" of the historic Gadsden flag, the US flag, and the Tea Party Patriots banner into the ground in Washington, DC. Midterm elections are being held across the United States with many highly contested races that could threaten the political futures of numerous incumbents as well as change the balance in the Senate and House of Representatives. (Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Jamey Stehn leaves the Hope Social Hall after casting his ballot in Hope, Alaska. Stehn and the other 200 or so residents of Hope use the one-room log building built in 1902 as their polling place and activity hall. (Michael Dinneen / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Volunteer Justino Mora, left, joins members of the mariachi band "Los Munecos," and other Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles volunteers to urge immigrant voters to vote early in the California election in Los Angeles, California. The sign reads in Spanish: "Everybody to Vote." (Damian Dovarganes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Congressman Joe Sestak speaks with a reporter after casting his ballot in Gradyville, Pennsylvania. Sestak faces Republican candidate Pat Toomey in the midterm election. (William Thomas Cain / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Sloan Atkins, 6, left, helps her mother, Coleen Atkins, as her sister Reese Atkins, 4, helps their father Anthony Oliva, right, fill out their ballots in West Miami, Florida. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Sen. John McCain and his wife, Cindy, address the media outside a polling station in Phoenix as Apollo, a dog owned by McCain's son, Jimmy, licks the camera. (Matt York / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. A member of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers fills out his ballot at a polling station inside the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers Spellman Room in Ossining, New York. (Jessica Rinaldi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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