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Daily News-Miner - Alaska Sen. Stevens Says Palin's Speech 'Hit it Out of the Park'

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Location: Washington, DC

Daily News-Miner - Alaska Sen. Stevens Says Palin's Speech 'Hit it Out of the Park'

By R. A. Dillon

Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens was delighted with Gov. Sarah Palin's speech last night to the Republican National Convention, even though it included several criticisms of funding he helped deliver to Alaska.

Stevens, who spoke with the News-Miner by telephone on his way to a radio interview in Anchorage, said it was one of the best speeches he's ever heard from a politician.

"She hit it right out of the park, there's no doubt about it," he said. "It's probably the best speech I've heard, at least since Eisenhower. It's definitely the best vice presidential speech I've ever heard."

Stevens said he was unconcerned with Palin's criticism of the use of congressional earmarks and bashing of Alaska's Republican old guard.

"There's no reason to take them personally," Stevens said. "I understand what she's saying."

Palin told convention-goers last night that she stood up to the "old politics as usual in Juneau" by taking on "special interests, the lobbyists, big oil companies and the good ‘ol boys network."

She also reiterated her claim that she told Congress "thanks, but no thanks" to a more than $200 million earmark for the Ketchikan-Gravina bridge, even though the money stayed in the state's general fund.

Stevens took Palin's comments in stride, saying he realizes some earmarks are more popular with state leaders than others. That doesn't make the process itself a bad one, he added.

"There are some earmarks that are OK in the eyes of the state and some that aren't," he said.

As an example, Stevens cited the state's request for additional federal funding for salmon research, which would likely require an earmark to make sure the money reached the specific state program.

As for the Gravina bridge earmark, Stevens said it was a worthy project originally placed in the 2005 national highway bill by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska. Opposition to the funding at the state level only started after it became a "national issue," caused primarily by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., Stevens said.

"I defended it on the floor of the Senate, but I didn't start it," he said. "It started in the House."

While Palin has joined Republican presidential nominee John McCain in his fight against earmarks, Stevens doesn't believe it will harm federal funding for projects beneficial to the state.

He said he's tangled with past presidents over Alaska and expects to do so again.

"I've had disagreements with every president since I've been in the Senate," he said. "Because we were a territory for so long, we've had to edge our way in to so many programs.

"We've done what we had to do. People can criticize us all they want."

Stevens praised Palin for supporting oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the national spotlight she brings to the energy debate.

"She showed the women of this country that the exploration and development of ANWR is a good thing," he said. "She's got people saying ‘drill, drill, drill' — what more can you ask?

"She's done a hell of a job."

Palin's place on the presidential ticket puts Alaska front and center in the energy debate and will help bring funding for renewable and alternative energy projects to the state, Stevens said.

"I believe Alaska is going to be the linchpin to the development of our energy potential for the good of the whole nation," he said.

Palin, Stevens said, is "going to be a tremendous asset in dealing with those people who oppose opening ANWR and other energy development in Alaska."

Stevens said reports of his tiff with the governor's office are overblown. He campaigned with Palin on behalf of Frank Murkowski when Murkowski ran for the governor in 2002, and they've had a good relationship ever since, he said.

"We've been good friends all along," Stevens said. "I always knew she had talent."

Stevens was disappointed with some of the media coverage of Palin and her family, especially the focus on the pregnancy of her 17-year-old daughter, Bristol.

"The attention paid to the problems of her family have gone a little too far. I don't see why they have to constantly go after her daughter," he said. "I must say, though, the family has handled it quite well."

Last night's television images of 7-year-old Piper Palin caring for her younger brother Trig, 4 months, were touching, Stevens said.

"She really showed her heart in taking care of that little baby," he said.

Stevens returns to Washington, D.C., on Friday, where the Senate is scheduled to resume work next week on high gasoline prices and funding the federal government for fiscal year 2009.

Also looming over Stevens when he returns is his trial for allegedly failing to disclose $250,000 in gifts and home renovations from former oil industry chief executive Bill Allen. Jury selection in the case is set to begin Sept. 22.

Stevens says he expects to be exonerated of all charges and says he has no plans to withdraw from the Senate race.

"I'm going to do what I have to do," he said. "It's not a matter of choice."

Stevens easily won the Republican primary last month, but he faces Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, a Democrat, in the November general election. Begich is considered Stevens' most serious challenger since he was appointed to the Senate in 1968.

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