ANCHORAGE, Alaska – With his political future uncertain, a weary Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, looking at bit deflated, left a gathering of supporters to go home and get some sleep. With 96 percent of precincts reporting, Stevens — the longest serving Republican in the history of the Senate — led Tuesday with 48 percent of the vote compared to 47 percent for two-term Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, a Democrat.
Stevens' lead was fewer than 4,000 votes with more than 40,000 absentee ballots to be counted within 10 days.
Since Stevens has been senator, he's never even remotely been in such a tight race, said his spokesman, Aaron Saunders. But, he said, Stevens was cautiously optimistic about the outcome.
Stevens, 84, has served continuously in the Senate since 1968. He normally skates to easy wins in this solidly Republican state.
"The senator doesn't want to appear overconfident. There are a lot of votes out there," Saunders said.
Both candidates hold a nostalgic appeal for voters; Stevens because he is a legendary figure and Begich because his father was Nick Begich, Alaska's third congressman who died in 1972 while running for re-election and is fondly remembered still.
Begich, calling Tuesday's election "historic," said he appeals to voters from both parties who are sick of the partisan politics that typifies Washington, D.C., these days.
The possibility that Stevens' historic run in Washington, D.C., could be coming to an end came into sharp focus last week when Steven was convicted of corruption for accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gifts and services to renovate his Girdwood home, and not disclosing them.
Since Sevens was found guilty of seven felonies, he has refused pleas from his own party leaders to step down, including John McCain who said the Alaska senator had "broken his trust with the people."
Instead, Stevens — known for his short fuse in the Senate when his colleagues don't see things his way — has vowed to fight the conviction, even arguing that he isn't really convicted until he's gone through the appeals process, including perhaps requesting a new trial.
That cry rang true with hardcore Stevens fans who gave him a rousing welcome when he returned to Alaska to campaign, remembering the many years in which he funneled large amounts of federal money to the state.
On Tuesday, Stevens was surrounded by about 200 supporters at an Anchorage restaurant, where he signed autographs and posed for pictures.
If Stevens is curmudgeonly, the 46-year-old Begich exudes amiability, refusing to call for Stevens' resignation even when Republican heavy-hitters wanted to toss him out of the game. Begich has said that was a decision Stevens would have to make.
Begich has encouraged voters to look to the future and consider what is best for Alaska when casting their ballots Tuesday. Begich, who describes himself as a practical problem-solver who worked across party lines to move the city from one with a large deficit to hosting a new $100 million civic center, is asking Alaskans to think about the future of the state when casting their ballots Tuesday.
The message has hit a chord with some Republicans who formed "Republicans for Begich" to get more Republicans to vote for a Democrat this time.
For others, Stevens' trial and his conviction had the opposite effect. It solidified their loyalty.
Begich, who ran three times for mayor before having success, told supporters at an Anchorage bar that he's never had an easy race.
"Tonight is going to be a long, long, long night," he said.
Jennifer Crutcher, 20, of Eagle River, said she and her two friends were voting Tuesday for the first time because they wanted to be part of history.
"It will change America completely," she said of the election. "We are going in a whole new direction.
Crutcher voted for Begich.
"Stevens did something wrong and got burned for it," she said.
Crutcher's friend, Patricia Eychaner, 19, also of Eagle River, said she voted for Stevens because even though she "felt like kicking him" when he was found guilty of corruption, he's also done a lot of good for Alaska.
"He has done so many great things," she said. "Everyone deserves a second chance."