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Unusual Penitent Commercials Part of Alaska Campaign

SO you think your congressman is obnoxious? United States Rep. Don Young admits that he is. The Republican incumbent, facing an uphill battle in his effort to hold onto Alaska's at-large Congressional seat, is airing unusual television commercials that apologize for his "abrasive" and "arrogant" behavior.

"I want to talk to you about something that's difficult for me - some of my own shortcomings. I've traveled from Ketchikan to Barrow, and I've listened to a lot of Alaskans, and it's painfully clear to me that many feel that I'm abrasive and arrogant, and I won't argue. I have made some mistakes and I'm sorry," Representative Young states grimly in the commercials.

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In Alaska, where 560,000 residents are sprawled over a region more than twice the size of Texas and where voters are often on a first-name basis with their elected officials, personal relationships count for a lot.

For Young, a former Yukon riverboat captain and teacher from the Athabascan Indian village of Fort Yukon, personal style may count him out of an 11th term. Even Alaska natives, long a loyal constituency, appear upset at him. "We taught him how to be a river pilot. We taught him dog mushing. We taught him politics. And then he goes back on us. For me, he doesn't exist," said Clarence Alexander, a Fort Yukon Athabascan leader.

Well known for tirades against House colleagues, environmentalists and the press, Young once slammed his hand in a steel leghold trap at a congressional hearing to defend the fur business. He threatened libel suits against reporters who termed his 57 House bank account overdrafts "bad," "bum" or "n.s.f." checks. He declared pride in two straight "zero" ratings he got from the environmentalist League of Conservation Voters.

Two recent polls put Young some 20 points behind his Democratic challenger, former Valdez Mayor John Devens. A former college president who gained national attention during the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, Mr. Devens narrowly lost to Young in 1990.

In another race, Republican Sen. Frank Murkowski, an affable Fairbanks banker who enjoys a high favorable rating, has better prospects for wining a third term. The Republican National Senate Committee said it plans to raise $2.75 million for him - a huge sum in Alaska.

LIKE Young, Senator Murkowski is a darling of the oil industry, which is providing funding. Also like Young, who has likened environmentalists to communists, Murkowski frequently harrangues against "enviro-radicals" and "environmental extremists."

Murkowski's campaign includes shots at the Democratic presidential ticket, which was endorsed by the Sierra Club. "Alaska's only hope for the future is to see the defeat of the Clinton-Gore ticket and other Democrats who want to lock up Alaska and its resources."

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But neither Devens nor Murkowski's rival, former state commerce commissioner Tony Smith, won backing from the League of Conservation Voters. The two Democrats support oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge - a majority view in oil-dependent Alaska, but a litmus-test issue for many environmentalists.

The two Democrats also face competition from Alaska's Green Party, the nation's first recognized Greens. Mary Jordan, the Greens' Senate candidate, is polling about 8 percent and could tip a close race.

But Mr. Smith's come-from-behind primary victory against Alaska native leader Willie Hensley makes him a threat to Murkowksi, experts say. A week before the Sept. 8 primary, Smith trailed by 14 percentage points.

"If it switches 20 percent again before the election - and they did it once, so who can say they won't do it again - Tony Smith will be our next senator," said Anchorage pollster Marc Hellenthal.

In recent weeks, Murkowski and Young have moderated their normally staunch conservative stances. Both bucked Bush on the cable-regulation and family-leave bills. Young even made an uncharacteristic but futile pitch for 3 million extra acres of designated wilderness in Alaska.

All may be for naught, analysts say, if the Democrats sufficiently exploit the incumbents' anti-abortion positions - unpopular in libertarian-minded Alaska - and their failures to secure any of the popular pro-environment Alaska provisions that were proposed for the national energy bill.

"It's one of those things that is embarrassing in that they're saying they're `proven and effective leadership'," Mr. Hellenthal said, quoting Young's advertisements.

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