Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens declared his innocence before a large, supportive crowd as he returned to Anchorage on Monday for the first time since his indictment.
Stevens held a rally at his campaign headquarters, giving a speech to a group of his backers who were told of the event over the weekend. The rally was not advertised -- a fact that kept possible anti-Stevens protestors away.
"I am innocent of the case that's been made against me, the charges that have been made against me," Stevens told his supporters. "But the way this case has been handled by the judge has renewed my confidence in our constitutional judicial system. I believe it will vindicate me ... I was so confident of that my lawyer on my behalf asked for a speedy trial so the case would be over before the general election."
Stevens is tentatively scheduled to stand trial Sept. 24 on seven felony counts of filing false financial disclosures. Each count carries a potential penalty of five years in prison.
"By scheduling the trial for next month this court has made it possible for all Alaskans to know the facts of the case and make up their own mind," Stevens said. "They will be the ultimate jury before they cast their votes in November."
Stevens arrived from Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport on Monday escorted by a convoy of leather-clad bikers who'd volunteered to help him make an entrance.
More than 100 people were at his campaign rally. That includes donors like Kenai sportfishing advocate Bob Penney, who testified before the grand jury on Stevens, former Cook Inlet Region Inc. President Carl Marrs, former Anchorage Mayor George Wuerch and Bill Sheffield, the former governor.
Stevens told the crowd that last Tuesday, the day of his indictment, "was one of the most difficult days of my life and I know it was hard for some of you too."
"Let me tell you my spirits are high and I hope yours remains so too," he said.
Stevens said his immediate focus is the Aug. 26 Republican primary, where he faces six challengers for the right to advance to the November general election. Stevens said the federal court has given him a "free period," the time to finish the primary before turning his attention to his trial in September.
"The primary is the goal right now. Help me win that primary and help me be the candidate for the Republican Party. September will take care of itself," Stevens told the crowd.
The 84-year-old Stevens, wearing a flight jacket, brown corduroy pants and his Masai Balance sneakers (good for posture), accepted hugs, kisses, and pats on the back.
Stevens would take no questions from reporters. He left after the rally for Fairbanks, to be there when President Bush gave a speech to troops at Eielson Air Force Base.
Bush made no effort to distance himself from Stevens, although his Justice Department is trying to put Stevens in prison for failing to disclose more than $250,000 in gifts the senator allegedly received from Veco Corp. and Bill Allen, who is at the center of a massive FBI corruption probe into state politics.
Bush made no mention of any of that. He said "the United States military has had no better supporter and stronger friend than Sen. Ted Stevens."
Stevens said he plans to spend the next few days in Anchorage and Bethel with his longtime friend, Hawaii Democratic Sen. Dan Inouye. The senators have a handful of official appearances and at least one fundraiser scheduled.
Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, a Democrat running against Stevens for the U.S. Senate, held his own campaign event on Monday. His was to announce some 50 "Republicans for Begich." It included city officials Mike Abbott and Sharon Weddleton, union business manager John Garrett, Nicholas and Dharna Begich, and former Anchorage Assembly members Dick Tremaine and Ted Carlson.
"We are here today because we are reaching out to Alaskans from all parties to support a new generation of leadership for Alaska," Begich said at his event.
Begich continues to shy away from talking about Stevens' indictment. He's running a television ad that shows unnamed dirty politicians going through a car wash, but has left labeling Stevens corrupt to the state Democratic Party.
"He'll have his day in court," Begich said Monday. "And it will prove whatever it proves, but the campaign moves forward."
Begich faces two opponents in the Democratic primary elections, Ray Metcalfe and Frank Vondersaar. But he said he expects both he and Stevens will win their primaries.
"When you look at the Republican primary, it's a closed primary, and I think there's a hard-core support for senator Stevens," he said.
Polls since the indictment show Begich with a large lead over Stevens. But an Ivan Moore Research Poll released last week has Stevens still far on top among the Republican candidates competing in the primary. "I was surprised by the fact the primary has been impacted so little (by the indictment)," Moore said.