PALMER, Alaska -- U.S. Rep. Don Young, just a few days from what's expected to be his toughest election in more than two decades, seemed to be having the time of his life.
Young strolled through the Alaska State Fair on Thursday with a grin, energized by the tight race. Between handshakes with fairgoers, he didn't try to hide his contempt for his Republican primary opponent, Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell.
"I know he's incompetent," said the 75-year-old Young, who has been Alaska's representative since 1973. "He doesn't have any clue where he's headed."
The Republican primary for Alaska's lone seat in the U.S. House is shaping up as the main event in Tuesday's election. Young faces Parnell and Kodiak state Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux. Pollsters say the battle between Young and Parnell is too close to call, with LeDoux's vigorous candidacy a wild card.
Tuesday's election will feature four ballot measures and the U.S. Senate primaries, including Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens' first test since his indictment.
Democrats Ethan Berkowitz and Diane Benson face off in their party's U.S. House primary to see who gets to challenge the winner of the Young-Parnell-LeDoux Republican primary race in the November general election.
Parnell, 45, is running on a right-wing platform of change. He waved off Young's insults, which have included the congressman recently calling the lieutenant governor "Capt. Zero."
"I think it's time to elect a congressman who treats everyone with respect," Parnell said in an interview Friday. "I'm not in this to diminish others, I'm in this to represent Alaska."
Moments earlier, Parnell had finished a news conference that Young had crashed, laughing and joking. Parnell had staged the event to criticize a Democratic Party attack on him.
Young told reporters the real outside interference in the campaign is the attacks waged against him by the Club for Growth, the Washington, D.C.-based conservative, anti-tax and anti-spending government group that accounts for more than $330,000 of the $474,114 Parnell has raised for his campaign. The group has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars more for its own attack ads against Young.
The Club for Growth opposes congressional earmarks, for which Young makes no apologies and, like Stevens, has used to direct hundreds of millions of dollars to Alaska projects.
LeDoux said Saturday that she had known about the Parnell press conference beforehand and her campaign discussed whether they should crash it too.
"I guess I felt that it was kind of tacky to go to somebody else's press conference," LeDoux said.
LeDoux, 60, said she thinks voters will see her as a good alternative. She noted Young is under federal investigation -- Young acknowledges it but won't say for what -- and said he's a "tool of the Outside lobbyists, special interest groups, etc." Seventy-five percent of Young's campaign contributions are from out of state, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.
LeDoux didn't have any more positive things to say about Parnell's candidacy.
"Parnell seems to have made some sort of pact with this, what I consider an anti-Alaska group, this Club for Growth," she said. "And, frankly, I don't think he comes across as a fighter."
PARNELL'S POPULARITY DIPS
Anchorage Republican pollster and consultant Dave Dittman said Parnell was high on top of the polls in March. That's when Parnell made his surprise announcement he was challenging Young in the Republican primary, followed quickly by Gov. Sarah Palin's endorsement.
"After that, he's been just drifting back down," Dittman said. "I think when Parnell announced, it was new, there was a lot of anticipation, a kind of excitement. As time has gone on, I don't think there's been anything major that's sustained it."
Dittman, who isn't working for any of the candidates in the U.S. House race, said Parnell just does not seem to generate excitement on the campaign trail. Other pollsters say they've seen Parnell lose ground as well.
"It's just not his personality. That doesn't mean he wouldn't be a good congressman," Dittman said.
Young does generate excitement, Dittman said -- whether people love him or hate him.
Young appears to have clawed his way back into contention in a race in which many political pundits had pronounced him dead. His message is that Alaska only gets one representative in the 435-member House, and the state needs someone with his experience, connections in Congress and "fire in the belly."
"I've been accused of being arrogant, being a bully, and sometimes I'll plead to being both of those," Young said in a TV debate last week. "Most of the time and every time I've done that is because I'm fighting for this state."
Young said he's confident that he'll win the Bush vote and, while at the state fair, said he was looking good with voters in the Matanuska-Susitna valley area.
Chris Ann Pace came up to Young at the fair to shake his hand. She said afterward that she likes Parnell too, but didn't think he did anything in the recent debates.
Pace said Young's done a lot for Alaska and it would be sad to flush it all because of the investigation. "We'll have to see how the accusations come out," she said.
Young has spent more than a million dollars of his campaign contributions on legal fees. He refuses to say exactly what his legal fees have been paying for, but the congressman is connected to several federal investigations. They include the wide-ranging federal probe into corruption in Alaska politics, which has focused on the fundraising practices of the Veco Corp. He denies wrongdoing and hasn't been charged with anything.
'YELLING IN THE CORNER'
Parnell said it's a risky strategy for Alaskans to just give Young the benefit of the doubt. He pointed out that Congress voted to investigate a Young earmark for Florida and argued that Young has isolated himself among his colleagues. Young's claim of 'fire in the belly" doesn't help with that, he said.
"When no one's listening to the congressman yelling in the corner, the loss of respect among his colleagues, that just speaks to ineffectiveness," he said.
Parnell is running to the right of Young -- both on spending and social issues such as abortion. National groups have labeled Young a "porker" on Alaska projects, a term he's embraced.
Both are generally anti-abortion. Parnell received the endorsement from Alaska Right to Life, though, a group that backed Young in past elections. That's because, unlike Young, Parnell opposes abortions even in cases of rape and incest, and is against stem cell research.
That's could help Parnell in the Republican primary, which is only open to registered Republicans and those not registered with any political party.
But Glenn Clary, a pastor at the Anchorage Baptist Temple, said he doesn't think either of the candidates necessarily has an advantage over the other when among Christian conservatives.
"Both of them claim to be born-again Christians, don't they?" Clary said.
Parnell is a member of ChangePoint, the largest church in Alaska. Steve Opsahl, an elder at the church, said he wouldn't be surprised if church members vote for Parnell. He said the election, though, is really more about Young than Parnell.
"I've been here for 52 years. This is more about how much longer people are going to put up with his arrogance," Opsahl said. "That's not a slam on Sean, it's just, good Lord, how much more can you put up with Don?"