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Convicted Alaska Sen. Stevens down by 3 votes

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Democrat Mark Begich took a 3-vote lead Wednesday in his effort to topple 40-year Republican Sen. Ted Stevens, a titan of Alaska politics who was convicted of felony charges in a federal trial last month.

Begich, the two-term mayor of Anchorage, began Wednesday down more than 3,200 votes, but closed the gap as officials resumed counting early and absentee ballots.

Neither side expected to be able to claim victory Wednesday. By late afternoon, officials had counted more than 44,000 of the roughly 90,000 outstanding ballots.

Last month, a federal jury in Washington, D.C., convicted Stevens of lying on Senate disclosure forms to conceal more than $250,000 in gifts and home renovations from an oil field services company.

That might have spelled a quick-and-easy political doom for a lesser figure, but Stevens is revered here for his decades of public service — and especially for scoring the state enormous sums of federal money.

Begich would be the first Democrat to win a U.S. Senate race in Alaska since the mid-1970s.

Fellow senators have called on him to resign, and he could face expulsion if he doesn't — in which case a special election would be held to determine his replacement. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, fresh from her failed run at the vice presidency, said Wednesday she'd be interested in serving in the Senate.

The outstanding votes were absentee, early, questioned and provisional ballots. Those counted Wednesday included nearly all of the 9,500 early votes, which trended in Begich's favor, and many of the absentee votes. Questioned and provisional ballots were expected to be counted Friday.

Should the result remain close a recount is possible. In Alaska, the losing candidate or a collection of 10 voters has three days to petition for a recount unless the vote was a tie, in which case it would be automatic.

If the difference between the candidates is .5 percent of the total votes cast, the state pays for the recount, to be started within three days of the recount petition. The state Elections Division has 10 days to complete the recount.

If Stevens holds onto his seat, the Senate is likely stuck with him for some time. As a practical matter, Stevens can't be expelled by the full Senate until after an Ethics Committee investigation and a majority vote of that panel. That won't happen until next year at the earliest.

Stevens also plans to appeal his conviction after he's sentenced, in February at the earliest. The appeal could take months or years.

President Bush could also pardon him.