Republican Sen. Ted Stevens has held his seat for nearly 40 of his 84 years, but state Democrats believe a raid on his home last year may have tarnished his legacy enough to make him vulnerable this fall.
Democratic Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, 46, announced his candidacy Sunday. But supporters of the popular Stevens, for whom the state's largest airport is named, have made it clear that nothing will come easy for his latest rival.
Begich wasn't an official candidate when the National Republican Senatorial Committee began questioning his credentials a few weeks ago in a Web site, http://www.begichbaggage.com. Last year the Alaska Democratic Party posted its own site aimed at Stevens: http://www.retireted.com.
"I'm pleased. It's time to get on with the show," Patti Higgins, who chairs the state Democratic party, said of Begich's announcement. "He will restore Alaska's reputation."
The National Republican Senatorial Committee predicted another win for Stevens.
"This does not change the strong support Sen. Stevens will receive from voters in this election," said Rebecca Fisher, the NRSC's spokeswoman.
Stevens filed in February for re-election. Democrats have considered him a prime target since the FBI and IRS raided his home as part of a wider probe into corruption in Alaska politics.
Stevens said the race will come down to experience, seniority and who has the proven record to best serve Alaska.
"Alaska has a small population and is a long way from Washington. Seniority and experience have never meant more than they do today. I believe that I am best able to provide the leadership, and I believe that Alaskans know that," Stevens said in a statement.
Democrats said a win for Begich could restore political prestige to the state, where three former Republican state lawmakers have been convicted on federal bribery charges, and one more awaits trial.
Federal authorities are reviewing the remodeling of the Stevens' official residence in Girdwood, a resort town south of Anchorage.
A former oil field executive has testified in a federal corruption trial that he sent company employees to work on the house. Stevens hasn't been charged nor has he commented on the investigation other than to say he has paid all bills presented to him.
Begich said meetings with Democratic leaders in Alaska and the U.S. Senate, as well as meetings with voters, convinced him he could beat Stevens.
He said key concerns included rising energy costs, especially for those living in rural areas or away from road systems connecting small towns to larger cities.
He said he also heard repeatedly from military veterans concerned about receiving proper care and benefits.
Begich is the son of Nick Begich, who was representing the state in the House when his plane disappeared over the Gulf of Alaska in October 1972.