ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Alaska U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski is acting as though she has already pulled off an improbable victory after her write-in candidacy, enthusiastically thanking supporters and telling them they've made history.
She may have won. Or she may be overly optimistic.
The race is far from over.
Murkowski's fate rests in the reading of at least 83,000 write-in ballots. As of Thursday, initial returns showed write-in ballots held a 13,439-vote edge over GOP nominee Joe Miller, but it's not clear how many of those are for Murkowski — or how many of the ballots have been cast properly.
And there remain at least 37,800 absentee, early and questioned ballots that have yet to be dealt with.
She and Miller both are preparing for a legal fight, raising money and assembling teams. Murkowski's includes Ben Ginsberg, who helped George W. Bush during the 2000 recount in Florida. Miller is ceding nothing, with his campaign declaring the race a "cliffhanger" and asking for financial help to "fight for conservative votes."
One major issue that could ultimately send the race to court: voter intent.
The law calls for write-in votes to have the ballot oval filled in and the candidate's full name or last name next to it. That section states that the rules are mandatory and there are "no exceptions to them."
Lt. Gov. Craig Campbell, who oversees elections, said this week that ballot counters would debate over ballots on which there are spelling errors before determining whether they should count.
But Miller attorney Thomas Van Flein suggested that no such debate was needed, since there are clear standards for counting write-ins. While he stopped short of saying the campaign would sue over misspelled ballots counted toward Murkowski's total, he said the recourse it has is going to court.
"We intend to have the state of Alaska follow the law," he said Thursday. Counting ballots, he said, is "an objective test, not a subjective test."
While there have been statewide write-in efforts in Alaska before, the rules have changed, making it difficult to accurately gauge what Murkowski calls "slippage," write-ins she'll lose because they were improperly cast. Still, she figures she'll lose only a small amount of those ballots.
The write-in count is due to start on Wednesday, and even that date has become a contentious issue. Van Flein questioned why the state moved up the count — it initially was set to start Nov. 18 — saying the earlier date, coupled with the count's taking place in Juneau, a city accessible only by air or water, created "great challenges" logistically.