09/21/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

In Red State Alaska, Dem Senate Hopeful Moves With Confidence

It's hardly news that Republicans have outperformed Democrats in recent years when it comes to Alaska. But Anchorage Mayor and U.S. Senate hopeful Mark Begich isn't letting the fact blunt his criticism for President Bush over his handling of the recent Georgia crisis.

"Russia is clearly testing us because our [military] resources are stretched so thin. I've said before we need to get out of Iraq sooner rather than later -- and shore up our Afghanistan-Pakistan issues," Begich told the Huffington Post.

"But Russia saw they could go into Georgia and we would have no real response except saying 'please get out.' ... I think we have to re-engage with Russia, and not just have George Bush watching the volleyball tournament in the Olympics while Georgia's getting invaded. That perception is very important, and I think he needs to take it a little more seriously," he added.

Given that Russia has started running bomber patrols off of Alaska in the aftermath of the Georgia crisis, Begich has cause for some local concern over Bush's stewardship of global affairs. While rattling off an itemization of the state's military capabilities, including C-17 cargo planes and F-22 stealth fighters, Begich noted that the "strong military" state is one of America's most strategic ports. Still, he doesn't see force as the only component necessary to improve America's leverage in global affairs.

"One thing the [Sen. Barack] Obama campaign will reestablish is our rapport with countries all over this globe, so that we have the capacity to negotiate with Russia when they are pushing the envelope like they did in Georgia," Begich said, adding: "He'll provide the oomph we need to do that."

For a local mayor to wade this deep into international politics while running against a seven-term incumbent U.S. Senator simply reflects the confidence of the candidate, who represents the Democrats' best state-wide hope in Alaska for some time. But despite the favorable winds blowing at his back, Begich comes off as a fairly cool customer, one who smartly declines to comment on the difficulties facing his opponent, Sen. Ted Stevens -- who finds himself indicted on seven federal counts of making false statements.

"We're a campaign of issues for the future of Alaska," Begich told the Huffington Post. "While that other noise continues to rattle out there, we're going to keep a different light on our very positive campaign of what we think is possible for Alaskans."

Aside from Stevens' troubles, Begich sees hope for his candidacy on several big issues like energy, health care, and education. On the first of those, he respectfully bucks the party line on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

"On exploration and drilling [I'm] supportive, but carefully cautious about it, if that makes sense," Begich says. "I'm not just going to do it really willy-nilly. But we'll do it when the environment is right."

Speaking more broadly, Begich describes the resurgent Democratic mood in his state as "a little more libertarian" than in other parts of the country. Noting that he's owned a handgun since the age of 16, Begich says even the state's liberals are strong gun rights supporters.

But while he hasn't made a secret of his objections to some mainstream Democratic positions, neither is Begich coy about his strong enthusiasm for presumptive nominee Barack Obama, either.

After saying he'd be happy to campaign with Obama in Alaska, Begich added: "he offers an incredible inspiration to young people, [and for] Alaskans he represents a new way of looking at how Washington works. Even though he's a senator, he's running as an outsider in a lot of ways. We like that in Alaska."

To those who are skeptical that Alaska could become Obama country, Begich notes that 15 years ago, Democrats regularly won seats in the state legislature, before the state slipped into a more conservative track. Now, Begich says, with the urbanization of former frontier areas, some communities are thirsting for zoning laws and competent governance. "The cities have grown up. They want to be more established, so there are lots of inroads for Democrats, and for progressives," Begich said. "They're interested in quality education, good-quality roads and other developments. It's a very interesting mix given [the political situation] half a dozen years ago."

Begich's optimism is supported by Pollster.com's chart of recent polls, which shows a consistent lead before Stevens's indictment, and an even bigger advantage since that news broke.

In some ways, Begich appears eager to dispel the notion that, should he win, it will have been due to the Stevens indictment. "Prior to his indictment, we were five to eight percentage points ahead. That, I think is important. We believe the race had already shifted ... the data has showed us that. I still think there is a concern that some people aren't sure what life will be like after Ted Stevens. But for the people who are moving our direction, they think I'll be able to do equal or better than what he's done."