With Republican insiders watching carefully to see whether she has developed the right stuff for a national presidential run in 2012, Sarah Palin has backed a dark horse in her own backyard this year.
Stepping into an intraparty fight in the Alaska GOP, the former governor has given her endorsement and $5,000 to little-known Fairbanks lawyer Joe Miller. Mr. Miller, a former judge, had been running what was widely seen as a quixotic primary race to unseat Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the clear choice of the state party establishment.
Mrs. Murkowski is considered a near lock to hold the seat for Republicans as they fight to reclaim control of the Senate. But to many conservatives in the land of grizzly and polar bears, the second-term lawmaker is a bailout-backing pariah who voted with Democrats more often than any other Senate Republican.
Although Mrs. Palin has said that she hopes to put a number of fellow "grizzly mamas" in office this fall, Mrs. Murkowski - one of just four women in the Senate Republican caucus - apparently does not qualify.
Mrs. Palin revealed her choice via Facebook last month, hailing Mr. Miller, a favorite of the Alaska "tea party" movement, as a "true common-sense constitutional conservative."
Mrs. Palin's coveted endorsements have been credited with boosting GOP hopefuls from Senate nominee Rand Paul in Kentucky to gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley in South Carolina. But that clout in the midterm elections may be tested in her home state.
Despite receiving the maximum legal donation from SarahPAC, Mr. Miller cannot begin to match the war chest assembled by Mrs. Murkowski, whose father served as senator and governor and in December 2002 appointed his daughter to the Senate seat she now occupies.
The Miller campaign reported raising $111,000 in the April-to-June quarter and had nearly $125,000 in the bank as of June 30. Mrs. Murkowski was reported have $2.4 million to spend ahead of the Aug. 24 primary.
But Mr. Miller and supporters such as Mrs. Palin are banking on what they see as his wealth of conservative ideas rather than his modest campaign bankroll to score an upset in the primary.
"Lisa's voting record is just what Miller says it is," Debbie Joslin, a Republican National Committee member from Alaska, told The Washington Times. "She has always been liberal. Joe is very much conservative. He can have a temper, but is a smart guy who believes everything hes saying."
The challenger also stands to benefit from the support of the Tea Party Express, which bought $100,000 worth of radio ads to back Mr. Miller and said it is prepared to spend 10 times that in the primary race in one of the country's most affordable media markets.
Alaska GOP Chairman Randy Ruedrich, who describes himself as a former mentor to Mrs. Palin but has long since become a harsh critic, is no friend of Mr. Miller either. Mr. Miller joined other conservatives in an unsuccessful attempt to oust Mr. Ruedrich as state chairman.
David Eastman, an Alaska tea party activist, said he gives Mr. Miller "about a 40 percent chance" of pulling off the upset, despite his funding and organizational disadvantages.
"A lot of independents don't like the way Murkowski got appointed to the Senate. She never had to face a real campaign," Mr. Eastman said.
Mr. Eastman added that he supports Mr. Miller because "Joe's from Alaska and Lisa's from Washington, D.C., if you know what I mean."
For reasons that go beyond ideology, there is no love lost between Mrs. Murkowski and Mrs. Palin.
Mrs. Palin blocked the senator's father, Frank Murkowski, from a second term as governor by defeating him in the 2006 GOP primary. Mr. Murkowski's decision to name his daughter to the Senate seat he had just vacated upset many rank-and-file voters. Mrs. Murkowski's famous name and incumbent status helped her to a narrow victory over Democrat Tony Knowles for a full six-year term in 2004.
With zero political dynastic claims, Mrs. Palin won the governorship in her own right in November 2006, again with Mr. Knowles as her Democratic opponent.
Three years later, Mrs. Palin became an international figure as Sen. John McCain's vice-presidential running mate. Mrs. Palin resigned as governor in the summer of 2009, prompting widespread speculation about her political future.
In an exclusive interview with The Times in her Anchorage office just before she stepped down, she promised that, once out of office, she would devote her time to identifying and helping conservative candidates, including Democrats, who share her basic philosophical outlook.
"I will go around the country on behalf of candidates who believe in the right things, regardless of their party label or affiliation," she said at the time.
Mrs. Palins PAC typically has given money to conservative GOP candidates who tend to be darlings of various tea party movements, but there have been notable exceptions. In California, Mrs. Palin endorsed former Hewlett-Packard executive Carly Fiorina in the Republican race for the U.S. Senate nomination. In Iowa's gubernatorial race, she is backing moderate former Gov. Terry Branstad over a candidate backed by Christian conservative groups.
Having powerful allies in California and Iowa - the site of the nation's first presidential nominating contest - could help Mrs. Palin if she takes a shot at the 2012 GOP presidential nomination.
Mrs. Palin surprised conservatives when she embraced Mrs. Fiorina, considered an essentially non-ideological corporate manager, over state Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, who had strong backing from state and national conservative groups.
Mrs. Palin's donation to Mr. Miller's campaign may prove more important for its symbolic rather than its financial value, at least within Alaska.
"Absolutely the tea party can't raise what Murkowski can raise," said Mr. Eastman. "Fundraising in the state is minimal. The money does not come from Alaska because of the relatively low incomes of Alaskans."
Despite the large number of independent voters in Alaska, the winner of the GOP senatorial primary should have the advantage over the Democratic candidate in a state where voters trend strongly Republican. The governor, the state's lone U.S. House member, the state Senate president and the state House speaker are all Republicans.
Mr. Miller accuses his opponent of veering to the right in the GOP primary, and Mrs. Murkowski has moved to shore up her conservative base. Mr. Miller hits Mrs. Murkowski for what he said was her willingness to work with Democrats in Washington on a major energy bill.
"Exhibit 'A' for why Sen. Murkowski needs to go," Mr. Miller said in a statement posted on his campaign website. "At the very time shes on the Alaskan airwaves pitching her conservative credentials to primary voters, shes huddled with the Democrats in a backroom of the White House trying to cut a deal on sweeping climate-change legislation."
Mrs. Murkowski says Mr. Miller repeatedly mischaracterizes her votes, but she seems reluctant to directly assail her lesser-known rival.
"He seems to be taking the approach that we need to tear down Lisa Murkowski, which is really quite disappointing from a candidates perspective. Hes not saying why he would be a good senator," she said in a recent interview with the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner's editorial board.
According to a New York Times survey last week, Mrs. Palin has endorsed or contributed through her PAC to nearly 50 gubernatorial, Senate and House candidates - all Republicans.
Mrs. Palin won points among conservatives and others in Alaska and elsewhere when she endorsed Mrs. Haley in the bitter South Carolina gubernatorial primary and then stuck by her when critics accused her of marital infidelities. Mrs. Haley want on to win the nomination.
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