Ski accident does not deter Murkowski's rise

Despite a serious fall in a skiing accident, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski is a woman on the rise.
An accomplished skier, Murkowski tore two ligaments and cartilage in her left knee March 8 after tumbling more than 300 feet down Alaska's Mount Alyeska. The accident left the 51-year-old Republican temporarily confined to a wheelchair and crutches, but did not stop her from returning to Washington in time to vote the next day on a $410 billion spending package that included nearly $200 million for Alaska.
The quick return says as much about Murkowski's drive as the injury, sustained as she raced down the second-hardest of four skill levels on the 3,939-foot mountain.
The accident was the first stumble in an otherwise meteoric rise for Murkowski, who in her first full term suddenly finds herself Alaska's senior senator and the ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, a crucial role for her oil-producing state.
Murkowski also won a seat on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee and has been named to the Senate GOP's leadership team - the only woman among eight men.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who named Murkowski to the leadership post, calls her bright, accomplished and a pragmatic thinker who is able to talk to Democrats as well as Republicans.
"I can't think of anybody in recent years in the Senate who has gone further faster than Lisa Murkowski," McConnell said in an interview. "Alaska has a new powerhouse already."
Tall and slim, Murkowski's unassuming manner masks a steely ambition. She grew up in politics, the daughter of a former Alaska governor and U.S. senator. Now the state's senior politician, she is seeking to fill a role previously occupied by the legendary Ted Stevens, who was defeated last year after four decades in the Senate. Stevens, who delivered more money for his home state than almost any other figure in Senate history, was convicted in October of lying on Senate disclosure documents about hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts and home renovations.
While Murkowski has a long way to go to fill the void left by Stevens, she is off to a good start, McConnell and others say.
"She works hard, she's a quick study and she paid attention to the way Stevens worked in the Senate," said Jerry McBeath, a veteran political science professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. "She certainly learned how he was able to work in the Senate to the advantage of his state."
A report by the watchdog group, Taxpayers for Common Sense, ranked Murkowski No. 12 among senators in securing pet projects in the $410 billion spending bill approved by Congress. The earmarks add up to $181.5 million for Alaska, including many secured last year when Stevens was still in the Senate.
Even as she makes her way up the Washington ladder, Murkowski is dogged by an unspoken rivalry with another powerful woman from Alaska: Gov. Sarah Palin.
Murkowski is up for re-election in 2010, and pundits from Washington to Alaska have focused on a possible primary challenge by Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee and a possible presidential contender in 2012. Palin, whose term as governor ends next year, has not announced her intentions, helping stoke a torrent of media speculation about a possible Senate showdown.
Both women shrug off any notion of a rivalry - and they joined together in December in an op-ed column headlined, "We're not rivals; we're in partnership for Alaska."
Murkowski says the op-ed, which appeared in newspapers throughout the state, was written to debunk rumors about the Senate race that had "spun out of control." A potential matchup against Palin is of greater interest to the media than to voters, Murkowski said, adding that Alaska is big enough for two strong women.
Voters "like me and they like the job I'm doing. And they like the governor and the job she is doing. I don't think they want to see us battling," she said.
Pressed, Murkowski said she had "no idea what the governor's intentions are," adding: "I'm fully focused on the task at hand."
Murkowski also denies any family rivalry, even though Palin rose to fame by defeating Murkowski's father, Frank, in the 2006 Republican primary. One of the main issues used against the elder Murkowski was his 2002 appointment of his daughter to replace him in the Senate after he was elected governor.
Lisa Murkowski campaigned for Palin and John McCain last year and said, "In terms of hard feelings, there are none."
A spokesman for Palin said talk of a Murkowski-Palin race is entirely media-driven.
"We continue to point out that there's nothing that the governor has said or done to justify this speculation," spokesman Bill McAllister said in an e-mail. "In fact, just recently, the governor was effusive in her praise of Sen. Murkowski's response to the president on the stimulus package."
GOP leader McConnell said he does not know what Palin intends to do, but added: "I do know that we'll be supporting Lisa 100 percent" in her re-election bid.
McBeath, the political scientist, said Palin is unlikely to challenge Murkowski, calling the race risky and too close to 2012.
Anchorage pollster Dave Dittman said Alaskans appear to prefer that Murkowski and Palin each stay where they are. A poll taken in December by Dittman Research showed Murkowski leading Palin 57 to 33 among Republicans and independents in a hypothetical matchup.
A poll by the same firm showed Palin strongly favored for re-election.
Democratic Sen. Mark Begich, who defeated Stevens last fall, said Murkowski is in a strong position no matter who her opponent is. Begich, 46, said he and Murkowski represent a new generation of leadership in Alaska.
"We have very good working relationship, which is a plus for both of us, because people see us working together on Alaska issues," he said.
While she, like Begich, supports increased drilling for oil and natural gas, Murkowski is more moderate than many in the GOP caucus, Begich said. Murkowski supported a fair-pay act for women and an expansion of children's health insurance, both Democratic priorities.
"I prefer to say she's more of an Alaska Republican and I'm an Alaska Democrat. That's very different from what you see in the Lower 48," Begich said.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, also praised Murkowski, saying she is more interested in passing legislation than making headlines.
Bingaman, who served with Murkowski's father for more than two decades, said he and Lisa Murkowski worked closely together on a huge public lands bill approved by the Senate in January, despite opposition from many Republicans.
"I find Lisa's approach very constructive," Bingaman said, citing Murkowski willingness to listen and offer ideas aimed at consensus. Most recently, the pair have worked on a comprehensive bill to boost traditional and alternative energy sources.
Murkowski said she does not feel pressure to try to replace Stevens, but is aware of her increased stature and the need "to be at the top of my game."
While being in leadership is "nice," she said, for Alaskans her roles on Energy and Appropriations are much more important.
In an interview at her Senate office, seated beneath a totem pole that once decorated her father's office, Murkowski said the "glitz and glamour" of Senate life hold no appeal for Alaskans.
For them, the question is what does it mean at home, Murkowski said, before providing her own answer: "Lisa's making stuff happen."

By:  Matthew Daly