(AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens dropped further behind Democrat Mark Begich in his re-election bid Tuesday as the convicted felon's 85th birthday became a grueling wait that could determine whether his decades-long hold on power is over.
The longest-serving Republican in the history of the Senate trailed the Anchorage mayor by 2,374 votes out of 290,198 counted as election officials continued tallying absentee and other ballots. Begich had led by about 1,000 votes before Tuesday's count.
Stevens waited anxiously to see whether a climactic vote count would keep him in Congress long enough for his fellow Republicans to decide whether to expel him from their ranks.
He also turned 85 on Tuesday, just another in a series of topsy-turvy days for the six-term senator who has been straddling challenges to his power both at home and in his trial in Washington. Notwithstanding all that turmoil, Stevens revealed that he will not ask President George W. Bush to give him a pardon for his seven felony convictions.
Stevens' future was murky at a time when newly elected members of both the House and Senate were on Capitol Hill for heady receptions, picture-taking sessions and orientation this week. Stevens, for his part, had no idea what his life would be like in January, when the 111th Congress convenes.
"I wouldn't wish what I'm going through on anyone, my worst enemy," he lamented to reporters at one point. "I haven't had a night's sleep for almost four months."
Stevens was trailing Begich, with the remaining uncounted votes coming mostly from Anchorage and the surrounding area, where Begich is leading, and from the state's southeastern panhandle, where he was doing even better. Overseas ballots had to be sent in to election officials by Wednesday.
Stevens, who has served in the Senate since 1968, is renowned for bringing federal funding home to Alaska, as well as for wearing his Incredible Hulk tie when the going gets rough in Congress.
But last month he was convicted by a federal jury in Washington of lying on Senate disclosure forms to conceal more than $250,000 in gifts and home renovations from an oil field services company.
One of his leading critics in the Senate GOP caucus, South Carolina's Jim DeMint, announced Tuesday that he will hold off on a move to expel Stevens from the party conference and strip him of plum committee assignments. He said some of his colleagues want to see whether he wins another term before voting to sanction him.
DeMint said he'll press for a vote on Thursday if the tide somehow turns in Stevens' favor and he is re-elected.
"After talking with many of my colleagues, it's clear there are sufficient votes to pass the resolution regarding Senator Stevens," DeMint said in a statement. "The question now is timing. Some who support the resolution believe we should address this after the results of his election are confirmed in Alaska."
Many of Stevens' GOP colleagues have urged him to resign, but Stevens plans to appeal his convictions.
Senators can only be expelled after the Senate Ethics Committee investigates and recommends it. It takes a two-thirds tally, but most senators facing expulsion resign before a vote.
Removing Stevens from the GOP conference is a far lesser penalty than expelling him from the Senate. Stevens would still have full floor rights but would lose his slots on the Appropriations and Commerce committees next year, if re-elected.
Stevens already has been removed as top Republican on the Commerce panel and his ranking position on the powerful subcommittee responsible for the defense budget.
Meanwhile, jurors at his trial said Stevens was his own worst witness.
Two jurors — one of whom posted a Web log of her jury duty experience — say the senator undermined his own defense by verbally jousting with Justice Department prosecutors and denying that just because he was given something, that didn't make it a gift.
"It was kind of weird," juror Colleen Walsh said. "Throughout the case, he was kinda quiet and you know, kinda grandfatherly, but when he was up on stage, he was like a lion, and he was kind of demeaning to the lawyer, so it didn't help his case that much," she said in an interview.
Walsh, 32, and Brian Kirst, 25, an alternate who sat through the trial but did not join the deliberations, said Stevens' combative performance hurt him with the jury.
Kirst described the Justice Department's evidence as "hard-core," difficult to refute. Stevens' stories "just didn't add up," Kirst said.
"The whole thing was just a mess. It was like, 'You're not helping, so why are you up here?'" Kirst said. "It was kinda interesting to see him shoot himself in the foot."
The jury deliberations were filled with controversy from the start. Jurors complained of stress and violent outbursts from one of their members during deliberations. They asked for her to be replaced, but the judge refused.