WASHINGTON — Until she was asked to deliver it herself last month, Sen. Lisa Murkowski thought the Republican response to the president's weekly radio address was just that — an after-the-fact response.
"I suppose I shouldn't be so naive," Murkowski said, "but we do our response before we know what he says on Saturday!"
Murkowski has learned quickly since quietly maneuvering her way into the upper echelons of Republican power in the U.S. Senate. Within weeks of Sen. Ted Stevens' departure from the Senate after 40 years in office, Murkowski not only established herself as Alaska's senior senator, but put her own stamp on the job her own father appointed her to in 2002. She secured the top Republican seat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, gently elbowed her way onto the powerful Appropriations Committee and landed a spot on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's Republican leadership team.
Hard work, lucky political timing and deft-but-understated maneuvering have paid off handsomely for the 51-year-old Murkowski, the only woman now in the Senate's top Republican leadership ranks. McConnell, who appointed her this winter to one of the two unelected "counsel" spots in his inner circle, described her as "very sharp" and "a rising star in our conference."
"I've always had some members at the leadership table that I appoint," McConnell said. "And I thought she would have a great deal to add."
Murkowski is now a regular at the Tuesday afternoon press conferences the Republican Senate leaders hold in the Capitol, just after the party's weekly policy lunches. The only woman at the podium, Murkowski has used the open microphones as an opportunity to tout Alaska-related issues to a wider audience. Yet her leadership role also is likely to raise her profile in Alaska in the two years before she faces re-election.
She has fit well into Stevens' shoes as an advocate for Alaska, said one of his old Senate friends, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
"She's hardworking, she's smart, she's totally dedicated to Alaska," Hatch said. "She's now a power in her right. We all respect her. Certainly this old senator does."
They also admire Murkowski for her "ability to analyze questions from a lot of different sides," said McConnell's No. 2, Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. "I refer to it as moxie, but it's a willingness to analyze things from different points of view. And being willing to take positions based on that and not back down."
He, too, noted her advocacy on the part of Alaska.
"We benefit by having that part of our country represented in leadership as well. She knows what she's doing, she's not afraid to speak out, she represents her state well — there's something about Alaskans, they're not afraid to represent Alaska with a lot of vigor."
Already, she has followed Stevens' lead as a legendary appropriator, willing to earmark millions of dollars for Alaska. She ranked No. 12 in earmarks in the 2009 spending bill that's pending before Congress, according to the budget watchdog group, Taxpayers for Common Sense. The earmarks add up to $181 million for Alaska; many were secured last year when Stevens was still in the Senate.
Murkowski's rise is due in part to smart committee picks and lucky timing. With the retirement of Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico and the departure of scandal-plagued Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, it elevated Murkowski to the top Republican seat on the Energy Committee. When Stevens lost his election, Murkowski went directly to McConnell to appeal — successfully — for Stevens' old seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee. With Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's decision to step down from Republican leadership to consider a run for Texas governor, Republican leaders were determined in having a woman on his team.
"I'm just delighted that other people are recognizing the qualities that we always felt she had," said Ronald Birch, a Washington, D.C., lobbyist and former chief of staff to Stevens. Birch gave Murkowski a job as a paralegal in his law office before she went to law school.
"Lisa has never had any secret agendas," he said. "She's exactly what you want in a public servant. She's open, she's frank and she has the best interests of the country and the state at heart. If that doesn't fit into the Republican leadership, then there's something wrong with the Republican leadership."
Murkowski, a moderate Republican known for a pragmatic streak as a senator, said she is aware that her leadership role may call for her to more carefully toe the party line. But since she's in an appointed leadership post, not an elected one, she thinks she'll have more flexibility.
"When you're in elected leadership I think you're very cognizant of the fact that your colleagues have asked you to be out front there representing them on messaging," she said. "I'm not in that elected capacity, I'm there as counsel. Which is good. Because I'm asked for my input, my advice, I can speak up, and be a participant that way, perhaps without some of the confines. I think that's a good place to be. But I am cognizant of the fact that other members of my conference are looking to me and what I'm saying, and what I'm doing."
For many people in Alaska who've known Murkowski, her recent rise in Washington is evidence she has overcome some of the awkwardness of her arrival. Murkowski's father, then-Gov. Frank Murkowski, appointed her in 2002 when he won the Alaska governor's race and had to resign his seat in the U.S. Senate.
It's difficult to overcome that, said state Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, whose own father was the longest-serving lawmaker in the Alaska Legislature. Kerttula, who has known Murkowski most of her life, entered the Alaska Legislature with her in 1998. The two were on opposite sides of the aisle, but bonded as state House members.
"You do have to prove yourself. Sometime people will say, 'you're getting something handed to you,' " Kerttula said. "I'm sure Lisa's had to live through that. But I believe she's more than proven herself. The last election was a tough one, I think she ran a good, strong campaign, but she proved herself with that."
Murkowski's father said he rarely offers his daughter advice — he sees her a few times a year and speaks to her on the phone occasionally. His appointment of her as his replacement in the U.S. Senate touched off a rancorous term as governor, ending with his defeat by Sarah Palin in the 2006 Republican primary.
But the former senator and Alaska governor said he's proud of his daughter's ascent into the Republican leadership ranks, achieved on her own.
"When I appointed her, there were questions about the propriety, but I felt she was qualified and it was my choice," Frank Murkowski said. "I think we made a good choice and I think she's responding well. I'm very pleased that she's in leadership. Mitch McConnell is a good leader and her appointment I think represents a recognition of her contribution."
Kerttula said she has only one concern about her old friend: She worries Murkowski might work too hard.
Said Kerttula: "I thought she looked a little too thin the last time I saw her."