Alaska senator close to history as ballots checked

ANCHORAGE, Alaska Thu Nov 11, 2010 7:25pm EST

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R), U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (2nd R), and U.S. Sen. Judd Gregg (3rd R) talk after meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama and a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators to discuss passing comprehensive energy and climate legislation in Washington, June 29, 2010. REUTERS/Larry Downing

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R), U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (2nd R), and U.S. Sen. Judd Gregg (3rd R) talk after meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama and a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators to discuss passing comprehensive energy and climate legislation in Washington, June 29, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Larry Downing

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Rebuffed in her party's primary, Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski is now poised to become the first U.S. senator in half a century to win as a write-in candidate if most of roughly 100,000 ballots to be examined this week bear her name, or something close to it.

The tedious task of checking those ballots -- in which voters write in the name of a chosen candidate instead of selecting a printed name -- started on Wednesday, nearly a week after the congressional elections on November 2.

The count in a rented warehouse could make the result of the last undetermined U.S. Senate race clear by the weekend, although elections officials said it was going more slowly than expected and legal challenges were likely.

A judge on Wednesday rebuffed an effort to halt the vote count by Murkowski's opponent, Joe Miller, a favorite of the conservative Tea Party movement and Alaska's former governor, Sarah Palin.

Alaska's contest will not affect the balance of power in the U.S. Senate, where Democrats lost seats but kept their majority. Republicans took control of the House of Representatives, due partly to fervor for candidates backed by the Tea Party movement advocating smaller government and harshly critical of Democratic President Barack Obama.

It would mark a stunning comeback for Murkowski, a senator for eight years whose name did not appear as the Republican candidate on the ballot after her upset loss to Miller in the party's August primary.

Murkowski, a member of one of the state's most powerful political families, then launched an effort to instruct voters how to spell her name and fill out the space to choose a write-in candidate, a space often reserved for political want-to-be's and eccentrics.

As of Tuesday night, 92,528 ballots were for a write-in candidate -- not for Miller or Democrat Scott McAdams -- representing 40 percent of total ballots counted so far. Most of those write-in ballots are believed to be for Murkowski.

That would put her ahead of Miller, with 35 percent of the vote, and McAdams with 23 percent. With Alaska's size and remote geography, there are still an additional 25,000 absentee and questioned ballots to be counted, but they are not expected swing the race for any candidate.

NO WRITE-IN WINNER SINCE 1954

If Murkowski takes the lead and survives an expected legal challenge from Miller, she will become the first senator to get elected in a write-in campaign since then-Democrat Strom Thurmond in South Carolina in 1954.

State workers converged on Wednesday on a warehouse in the capital, Juneau, to examine the thousands of write-in ballots so far collected, under the watchful eyes of rival campaign managers, lawyers and volunteers.

Miller has conceded nothing.

"This race is not over until the ballots are counted," Miller told NBC's "Today" show last week. "Her (Murkowski's) little victory speech that she gave several days ago may actually be premature."

Both sides have assembled teams of lawyers, paid for by legal defense funds, and volunteers to scrutinize the process.

(Editing by Bill Rigby and Peter Cooney)

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