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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski began a drawn-out battle Wednesday for every ballot with her handwritten name, as her long-shot attempt to come back from a primary defeat forced Alaskans to choose between Sarah Palin's tea party and the state's long-time GOP establishment.
Write-in votes represented 41 percent of the vote with 99 percent of precincts reporting. GOP nominee Joe Miller had 34 percent; Democrat Scott McAdams, who all but conceded Tuesday night, had 24 percent.
While Murkowski celebrated the fact that she was still in the race, it remained to be seen whether the write-in votes would end up keeping her in office. Conservatives encouraged Alaskans to qualify as write-in candidates to disrupt her campaign, causing the field to balloon to 160, and Murkowski launched an offensive to make sure her write-in votes were done correctly and wouldn't be thrown out.
Robert Campbell, Miller's campaign manager, cautioned that Murkowski can't count on every write-in vote.
"I'm sure there's probably going to be two or three dozen votes for Spiderman," he said.
Lt. Gov. Craig Campbell said Wednesday write-in votes for Miller won't count because Miller's name isn't on the official list of write-in candidates
If Murkowski is successful, it would be historic. No U.S. Senate candidate has won as a write-in since Strom Thurmond did it in 1954.
A final ruling could take weeks. The latest tally didn't include thousands of absentee ballots that election officials don't plan to begin counting until Tuesday. The director of the Division of Elections has said Nov. 18 is the target to start counting names on write-in ballots, but the lieutenant governor, who oversees elections, hopes that process can begin sooner, perhaps within days.
Miller, who won the primary with Palin's support and backing from the tea party crowd, both of which rallied behind his flailing general election campaign, said a win for him would be a win for the tea party movement, and send a message that Alaskans want change — and new leadership — in Washington.
But Murkowski rejected that notion. While she considered Miller a tea party candidate, she said this race has always been about Alaska, "not about some national agenda."
Miller had been beset by a series of campaign hiccups, including a journalist detained by his security detail after a town hall and records, released by court order after news organizations sued, that showed he'd lied about improperly using government computers while a borough attorney in 2008.
Campbell, Miller's campaign manager, ceded nothing Tuesday and said he expected "several teams," of lawyers in Alaska soon to monitor the ballot count. Asked about the potential for challenges, he said, "Oh, absolutely."
Murkowski, criticized for not fighting back hard enough in losing the primary to Miller, sounded equally defiant.
"We are prepared to make sure that every vote is going to be counted, that no Alaska voter will be disenfranchised," she said. "We will do whatever is appropriate."