ANCHORAGE — Sen. Lisa Murkowski, criticized for not hitting back harder at her primary opponent before Tuesday's election, lashed out on Friday at fellow Republican Joe Miller as "paranoid" for suggesting her campaign's lawyers wanted to skew the results of the election.
And then, even as more than 20,000 ballots remain uncounted and the Republican primary remains unresolved, Murkowski demanded an apology from Miller for what was seen as a crude remark about her campaign via the social networking platform Twitter.
The vitriol began boiling over Friday when Miller's campaign accused the National Republican Senatorial Committee of trying to manipulate the outcome of the race by sending lawyer Sean Cairncross to assist Murkowski with legal questions surrounding the ballot count.
The committee's place is "on the sidelines," he said in a statement.
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"You have to be concerned anytime somebody lawyers up and tries to pull an Al Franken, if you will," Miller said, referring to the 2008 ballot recount battle between then-Sen. Norm Coleman and the Democrat who beat him, Al Franken. "We are very aware that there may be some attempt here to skew the results. I hope that is not the case. Alaskans won't stand for any post-election foul play; the accurate vote of the people must stand."
Murkowski fired back, suggesting Miller had first "lawyered up" by hiring Sarah Palin's attorney, Thomas Van Flein, who's best known for defending the former Alaska governor against ethics complaints. Palin endorsed Miller in the race and is credited with steering his way hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from the Tea Party Express.
"To suggest that the NRSC has sent an attorney to Alaska to skew results is paranoid," Murkowski said.
She said her lawyers were hired "to make sure that every Alaskan's vote counts in this election. Mr. Miller shouldn't be afraid of what the voters still have to say about this race. We have volunteers at polling sites observing the process and anticipate that when the final numbers are tallied we will prevail."
The attack on the NRSC was somewhat unusual -- on Wednesday, the committee confirmed it had also spoken to Miller and had assured him that were he to prevail in the primary, he would have its full support. Miller, though, appearing on the Fox Business Network, accused the NRSC of meddling in the primary. He told the host he had "stood up to the establishment before."
"So you know, we're up against a machine," he said. "Clearly they're putting their pressure to bear but I think we're going to prevail at the end."
Miller holds a 1,668-vote lead but more than 20,000 absentee and questioned ballots remain to be processed and counted.
TWITTER UPROAR AND A WRECK
Miller's day began with a three-car collision in Fairbanks in the morning and, by the end, concluded with him issuing an apology for what a staffer wrote under his name on Twitter about Murkowski.
Alaska State Troopers reported Miller was in a three-vehicle accident in which his pickup rear-ended another vehicle, which, in turn, rear-ended the third vehicle in a middle-turn lane. No one was hurt, it was unclear who was at fault and no one was cited, troopers said.
The Twitter dispute began when Miller's campaign addressed rumors that Murkowski might join the Libertarian Party ticket if he prevails in the Republican primary. This was the controversial tweet: "What's the difference between selling out your party's values and the oldest profession?"
The tweet was quickly deleted but it refused to die a quiet death. It was forwarded - known as retweeting - throughout cyberspace within minutes. It was posted on news sites and partisan blogs.
Murkowski, in a written response, called the Twitter remark "disgusting" and said Miller owed Alaskans, women and her family an apology.
"Alaskans deserve better. This type of statement is inexcusable from someone who wants to represent our state," she said. "While I have been focused on the remaining ballots, the Miller campaign has launched yet another smear campaign against me. They lied about my record during the primary and now they have resorted to name-calling -- it's disgusting."
A spokesman for Miller, Randy DeSoto, blamed the tweet on a staffer and said the staffer's tweeting privileges had been revoked. The Miller campaign said initially the reference was to the Libertarian Party, not Murkowski herself.
"Please accept my apologies," the campaign wrote on Twitter. "Staffer trying to encourage Libertarians not to sell out."
Later, Murkowski got her apology. Miller's campaign, in a longer written statement, said the tweet was to " encourage the Libertarians to stay true their party's values and not to allow Senator Murkowski to run under their banner."
Miller said the tweet from a volunteer who assists him with social networking "was in poor judgment."
"And while the comments have been misconstrued (they were directed at the Libertarian Party), I don't stand by those comments," he said in a statement. "The Libertarians are free to choose whomever they want to represent them. It's up to them to decide who best represents their values. I am a Republican Party U.S. Senate candidate, and look forward to representing that party's message of limited government and returning power to the states and the people who live in them."
He added this: "I certainly apologize to Senator Murkowski for any hurt feelings caused by this poorly conceived post."
Technically, Murkowski has the option of running on the Libertarian ticket in the November general election. The Alaska Libertarian Party has discussed the possibility, and its Senate candidate, David Haase, has said he is open to talking to Murkowski about him stepping aside.
Andrew Halcro, a Murkowski supporter who served with her in the state Legislature, spoke to Haase Wednesday about the possibility. Halcro said he was acting on his own and not coordinating with the Murkowski campaign, although he had mentioned it to her.
Murkowski's campaign director, John Bitney, said Friday afternoon that the Libertarian option isn't being discussed within the campaign. The campaign has not spoken to anyone with the Libertarian Party, Bitney said.
"It's speculation on a whole bunch of people's part," he said. "This is an ongoing election and the ballots are still being counted. That's what we're focused on, making sure every vote counts."
Regardless, Halcro said he was commissioning a Dittman Research poll over the weekend to test how Murkowski would fare if she did run as a Libertarian. It also will ask how people would vote in a race between Miller, Democrat Scott McAdams, and Murkowski running on a third-party ticket.
Meanwhile, the undisputed Democrat in the race, Sitka Mayor Scott McAdams, sat quietly while the Republicans duked it out. It gave national Democrats some breathing room to evaluate what sort of resources to devote to a race they previously had no intention of getting involved in -- although they did on Friday unveil a teapot- and teacup-themed website that painted Miller as part of Palin's "Tea Party set."
McAdams made the most of it, also on Twitter: "While those two are fighting and squabbling, join our positive campaign," he wrote. "Get friends to follow us and contribute."
Miller too will be aiming to boost his profile in the coming days. His campaign said he is expected to have a number of national television appearances over the next several days, including an appearance on the CBS News Sunday morning program "Face the Nation." He's also expected to make a series of appearance on Fox News on Monday.