ANCHORAGE, Alaska — After a sometimes thrilling, sometimes bumpy run in the national spotlight, Alaska saw its governor defeated for vice president Tuesday. Still uncertain was the future of the state's senior senator, his standing as a political giant hammered by corruption convictions.
"Forever, I'm going to be Sarah from Alaska," Gov. Sarah Palin said as she voted in her hometown of Wasilla before flying to Phoenix, where Tuesday night she watched her running mate, Republican Sen. John McCain, concede defeat to Barack Obama in the presidential race.
McCain praised Palin as "one of the best campaigners I have ever seen, and an impressive new voice in our party for reform and the principles that have always been our greatest strength."
In the Senate race, voters were deciding whether to overlook Ted Stevens' convictions and re-elect the Republican who has represented Alaska in Washington, D.C., for 40 years.
He was challenged by Democrat Mark Begich, the popular mayor of Anchorage whose congressman father, Nick, died tragically in a plane crash in 1972 while campaigning for re-election.
Stevens led with 48 percent of the vote compared with 47 percent for Begich, with 96 percent of precincts reporting. With more than 40,000 absentee ballots to be counted within 10 days of the election, Stevens went home late Tuesday to get some sleep, his political future uncertain.
Begich sought to appeal to voters from both parties who are sick of the partisan politics in the nation's capital these days.
"They recognize that times have changed, Senator Stevens has changed," Begich said Monday. "This is a moment in time we will shift Alaska and move it forward."
Stevens, 84, the longest serving Republican in the history of the Senate, normally skates to easy wins in this solidly Republican state. His historic run was jeopardized when he was convicted last month of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of gifts and services to renovate his Girdwood home, and not disclosing them.
Found guilty of seven felonies, Stevens has refused pleas from his own party leaders to step down.
Instead, he vowed to fight the conviction. Supporters gave him a rousing welcome when he returned to Alaska to campaign, remembering the many years in which he funneled federal money to the state.
The 46-year-old Begich refused to call for Stevens' resignation, saying that was a decision Stevens would have to make.
Voters made their own decisions, two-thirds saying in exit polls that they were weighing Stevens' legal troubles.
"Stevens did something wrong and got burned for it," said Jennifer Crutcher, 20, of Eagle River, as she voting Tuesday for the first time, casting her ballot for Begich.
A friend, Patricia Eychaner, 19, voted for Stevens. Even though she "felt like kicking him" when he was found guilty of corruption, she said he's done much good for Alaska. "Everyone deserves a second chance," she said.
Palin, largely unknown nationally when McCain tapped her as his running mate, quickly became a star _ and a lightning rod.
The Alaska governor excited the GOP base, especially evangelical voters, but critics dismissed her political resume as brief and light on substance. Her glamor and her persona as a "hockey mom" lit up the blogosphere and became fodder for satirical impressions by Tina Fey on "Saturday Night Live," where she gamely appeared in the midst of the campaign.
In Wasilla, McCain's concession was broadcast on large screen TVs inside the city's sports center at what was supposed to be a victory rally. Onscreen, viewers saw Palin fight tears as McCain praised her.
"I think America made a big mistake," said Phil Straka, a professional photographer.
But Beryl Kring looked ahead.
"It's just the beginning for Sarah. She'll be on the ticket in 2012," Kring said.
In the race for Alaska's lone House seat, Republican Don Young sought his 19th term.
Young led with 52 percent of the vote compared with 44 percent for Democrat Ethan Berkowitz, with 96 percent of precincts reporting.