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Wednesday, October 31, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Theater Of The Bizarre: Alaska's Governor Race

ANCHORAGE - Just east of downtown, where the rugged Chugach Mountains rise 7,000 feet, winter's first snow is falling.

Sweeping slush off walkways and windshields, residents of the foothills complain winter has come too early. In fact, its arrival is a timely reassurance. The increasingly torrid political climate here was beginning to make the Frozen North feel like the Republic of Bananarama.

There's jungle warfare on the tundra.

No fewer than five political parties are battling for the governorship, including two of uncertain legal standing and one that wants Alaska to secede from the Union.

The combatants in next week's election include a married couple, a political rookie who lives in a remote cabin without a phone, two millionaires, and a state senator who describes himself as ``an old dog baying at the moon.''

These adversaries are so intent on winning they've attempted character assassinations, switching parties, filing lawsuits - everything short of a coup d'etat. But don't rule that out.

It's happened before in Alaska.

In 1982, a coalition of disgruntled legislators physically removed House Speaker Jim Duncan, a Juneau Democrat, from the podium. They secured the chamber doors with bicycle chains and voted a new leader - all in a few breathless moments before state troopers stormed the floor.

Anchorage Republican Joe Hayes became speaker and re

mained in that position until 1986, with the help of influential rural Democrats.

Political treachery anywhere. Politics as usual in Alaska.

Party loyalty just isn't important here. Roughly 60 percent of the voters are registered as independents, and recent polls indicate the other 40 percent aren't firmly committed. So, a politician can rebel without fear of losing votes. Heck, he may even win a few.

Alaskans value political independence even more than four-wheel-drive vehicles or tickets to Hawaii in January.

That's a fact White House Chief of Staff John Sununu either forgot or didn't understand when he called GOP warhorse Wally Hickel last month and forbade him to run for governor - for the good of the party.

Ever since President Nixon fired him as Interior Secretary in 1970, Hickel has coveted the Alaska governorship, a post he gave up when he went east. But after four unsuccessful bids and a 71st birthday, Hickel says he was ready to give up.

``I had no interest in the fight,'' he said.

Then Sununu called.

``Nobody pushes me,'' Hickel said. ``Nobody threatens this Great State.

``And Sununu threatened,'' he said. ``Sununu told me that if I defied him, he'd make sure Congress went tough on Alaska.''

Sununu isn't commenting on that conversation, but his silence isn't lessening the gaffe.

``I resent Sununu's interference, I resent his silence. He should apologize,'' says Hickel supporter Cheryll Boren. ``I disagree with Wally on a lot of issues, but I'm going to vote for him because I don't want the federal government telling Alaska what it can do.''

Hickel is running with the Alaska Independence Party, a fringe group advocating that the 49th state declare itself a sovereign nation. But he's not a separatist; he's an opportunist: the Independence Party was the only 11th-hour ticket to the general election.

Hickel's running mate is state Sen. Jack Coghill, 65, who defected from the No. 2 spot on the GOP ticket. A right-wing Republican from rural Alaska, Coghill disliked the comparatively liberal positions and urban alliances of his original running mate, Sen. Arliss Sturgulewski of Anchorage.

He resented his ribbon-cutter status even more.

Coghill's feelings were evident. So when he bolted, Sturgulewski was ``frankly relieved.''

But she also was frantic. Alaska law requires gubernatorial candidates to declare a lieutenant-governor running mate, and the filing deadline was imminent. Sturgulewski had barely 50 minutes to find a once and future household name.

Party bosses huddled. Phone calls bounced off the state's telecommunications satellite. Party bosses huddled. More phone calls. Party bosses huddled.

Finally, they had a name. They had a ticket. Sturgulewski was ``frankly relieved.''

With minutes to go, she sprinted to the elections office, signed the filing form with a flourish and turned to face reporters and television cameras with an arm around Anchorage businessman and former Alaska Railroad Chairman Jim Campbell.

The running mates looked a little stunned.

No wonder. Only days before, they'd been bitter political rivals.

Campbell had opposed Sturgulewski in the primary election. It had been a rancorous contest, notable for low blows and sexist gibes.

Sturgulewski and Campbell were still smiling at the cameras when the first tremors were felt.

Like the infamous '64 earthquake, the Hickel-Coghill-Sturgulewski-Campbell shocker was rocking Alaska.

The state's Republican party split and its leadership toppled. Then the ground collapsed under the Democrats - prominent female party members were throwing support to Sturgulewski.

Says Eleanor Andrews of Anchorage, a former Democratic commissioner of administration: ``I didn't like the way Arliss was treated. The Republican Party has not stood behind her and I can only surmise that's because she acts as a strong, independent woman. Maybe if she'd behaved like a `nice girl'. . .''

At the time, political pundits speculated Hickel's leap into the campaign would defeat Sturgulewski and hand victory to Democrat Tony Knowles. But that's not how it appears to be working out.

Recent figures, gathered by both Democrat and Republican pollsters, show Sturgulewski leading with roughly 35 percent of the vote, Hickel with 30 percent and gaining, and Knowles with 29 percent.

Allowing for the reported 5 percent margin of error, it looks to be a tossup.

Knowles' running mate is Willie Hensley, possibly the most widely recognized Alaska Native leader. Knowles and Hensley agree on most issues, and they even like working together.

``We don't have to waste energy on in-fighting,'' says campaign spokesman Steve Lindbeck. All we have to do is emphasize Tony's record on women and family issues, the environment, the differences between us and them.''

A former Anchorage mayor, Knowles has long been a favorite of Alaska's women voters. He's tall, dark, handsome and pro-choice.

But so is Sturgulewski. Pro-choice that is.

At one time or the other, Knowles has been endorsed by the Alaska Women's Political Caucus.

But so has Sturgulewski.

He favors drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

But so does she.

In an effort to distinguish themselves, Knowles and Sturgulewski are engaged in an expensive media battle. But rather than lessen the confusion, the commercials only seem to make it worse.

In one TV spot, Knowles dons a hard hat and climbs aboard an oil rig to remind voters he helped opened Alaska's richest frontier by working as a roughneck during the pipeline boom.

Before viewers have time to dash back from the refrigerator, a Sturgulewski ad appears, and there she is on an oil rig.

``Hey Tony,'' says Sturgulewski, ``anybody can rent a hard hat.''

Knowles answers with a change of the channel.

``Arliss may tell you I rented this hard hat, but I earned it. And then I earned this,'' he says, picking up a chef's hat.

``And now, Arliss,'' he says, reaching for an Army helmet, ``if you want to copy this ad I should warn you I earned this in the 82nd Airborne.''

Advisers in both political camps say the spots speak loud and clear to voters.

``Maybe,'' says voter Brian Donohoe, ``But I don't hear anything. Of course, I wasn't listening. I mean, I thought they were talking to each other.''

The alternative to those veteran politicians are Green Party candidates Jim Sykes and Jeanmarie Larson Crumb; and for The Political Party, Mike O'Callaghan and Lydia Darby-O'Callaghan, a husband-and-wife team.

It took a court ruling to get those four on the ballot.

To be included in the Alaska ballot, so-called ``third parties'' must turn in voter signatures equal to 1 percent of the votes cast in the last general election. But neither party was able to collect enough by the state's Aug. 1. deadline.

Sykes, and then O'Callaghan, challenged the law. An Anchorage Superior Court judge found the state's deadline arbitrary and unconstitutional.

Darby-O'Callaghan says her fledgling party would expand individual rights through regular ``village meetings.''

``Brainstorming, sharing times,'' she says, ``where people could develop their concerns into solid action plans.''

Ditto the Green Party, which is ``devoted to righting environmental and social wrongs around the world,'' says Sykes.

The new parties, the new alliances, the chaos, disturb some Alaskans but delight many more.

Says Juneau resident Glenda Carino: ``As compensation or maybe as a consequence of living in this outpost, Alaskans expect their politics to be entertaining.

``We think this is great.''

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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