With Palin Away, Who'll Run Alaska?

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Sarah Palin is back in Alaska on Wednesday — but she won't be staying there for long. The McCain-Palin campaign needs her star power to keep its post-convention surge going, and even this short stay in her home state will be occupied with prepping for a Thursday television interview with ABC's Charles Gibson.

So who's running Alaska while Palin is out making the state famous?

Palin has a predictably homespun answer. "As the mother of five, I know how to multitask," said the governor in a recent statement. But it's clear that Lieutenant Governor Sean Parnell, 46, will pick up a number of executive functions while Palin — midway through a four-year gubernatorial term — multitasks elsewhere.

The fact is, even if Palin is not running the state, she's responsible for who does. That's because all the politicians who would succeed her — indeed, most of the new power structure of the state — are either made in her image (reformers sloughing off old ties to oil and the scandal-ridden state GOP) or were plucked from the valley where she grew up to serve important state positions after she became governor in 2006. If you want clues about Palin's leadership abilities, don't look to her perfectly rehearsed stump speech; look north to Alaska, where her acolytes will take over the reins of government.

Parnell is one of those remade in Palin's image. Once an an oil lobbyist, Parnell latched onto Palin's reform agenda when he ran for lieutenant governor in 2006. Last year, with Palin's endorsement, he announced that he would take on the state's only delegate to the House of Representatives, Don Young, in a GOP primary race. Young, one of the most entrenched members of Alaska's political establishment, is currently under investigation for taking money from the oil services company VECO. (Alaskan Ted Stevens, the Senate's longest-serving Republican, is scheduled to stand trial later this month on charges of lying about hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts and home renovations he received from VECO. Both Young and Stevens have denied any wrongdoing.)

The primary took place Aug. 26, and the most recent vote count had Parnell behind by just 239 votes. A recount is likely but if Parnell loses — and John McCain and Sarah Palin win in November — then he would serve out the remaining two years of Palin's term. If Parnell triumphs, then next in line for the Alaska statehouse is attorney general Talis Colberg, a 2007 Palin appointee.

Colberg — like seemingly every other Alaska politician —spins off his fair share of controversy. Questions have been raised about his qualifications for the top law enforcement office; Colberg wrote his Ph.D. thesis on the Alaska State Fair (held in his hometown of Palmer, just down the road from Wasilla), and his legal experience is mainly in worker's compensation cases. It's not the heftiest resume for a state that faces extraordinarily complicated legal wrangling over big oil and other resource extraction issues.

Colberg also has a role in the current Troopergate investigation — about whether Palin pressured then-Commissioner of Public Safety Walt Monegan to fire Palin's former brother-in-law Mike Wooten, and then fired Monegan because he wouldn't fire Wooten. Under normal circumstances, Colberg's office would have represented the governor in the inquiry, but Colberg admitted in August that he was among the dozen or so members of Palin's staff and family who contacted Monegan about Wooten. So Colberg had to recuse himself, and the state hired independent counsel to defend the governor.

Colberg would only be acting governor, however, and would call a special election from 60 to 90 days after taking that role. But on the night of Palin's rousing convention speech, even that had some at the Mug-Shot Bar in Wasilla grousing. "A new statewide election? That'll cost hundreds of thousands of dollars," said one patron. "Sarah's great for Alaska, but I don't know if she's that great."