WASILLA, Alaska -- Voters have not elected a woman as governor of Alaska in 47 years of statehood, and just a few months ago, before she trounced Gov. Frank Murkowski in the Republican primary, Sarah Palin was hardly known outside this growing suburb of Anchorage.
Now Palin, 42, has a sizable lead in most polls over Tony Knowles, a former Democratic governor who has survived in a conservative state by working closely with the powerful oil industry and cultivating ties across party lines.
"She's a suburban mom," said Dan Newman, the pastor of Wasilla Christian Fellowship, one of several evangelical churches here, and a Palin supporter. "It's almost the opposite of what you'd expect from Alaska."
Palin, the former mayor of Wasilla, stands out in a state that has seen few fresh faces in politics. She is untainted by government scandal and unburdened by political debt. She is a conservative Christian who opposes abortion. She runs marathons. She fishes. She hunts.
"We always have a choice," Palin, who was an infant when her family moved to Alaska so her father could take a job teaching school, said in an interview. "We can go backwards and be real negative, or we can go forward and be positive."
Still, political analysts say Palin is not a lock to win.
Knowles has been able to keep the race competitive, in part by questioning whether Palin has the experience to lead a state where voters measure politicians on issues as wide-ranging as energy exploration, aerial wolf hunting and subsistence fishing in the arctic bush.
Knowles, 63, tries to sell his experience, having served eight years in the governor's office in Juneau, leaving in 2002 because of term limits. He also casts Palin as provincial.
More specifically, Knowles has suggested that Palin lacks the backbone and skills to negotiate with oil companies to build a new natural gas pipeline, something they agree is critical for the state economy as oil production declines on the North Slope. About 85 percent of the state's general revenue comes from taxes on the oil industry, and many people view the new gas pipeline as Alaska's next natural resource boom.
Palin is portraying herself as a needed outside agent of change at a time when the FBI is investigating links between Republican leaders in the legislature and a major player in the oil industry. The tactic worked well in the August primary, with only 19 percent of voters supporting Murkowski's bid for a second term.
Two of the three members of the state's congressional delegation, Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young, have been in office for a total of 71 years. The third, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, has been in office since 2002 in the seat her father held for 22 years before that.
Palin's rise to prominence has come in part by turning the spotlight on the failings of her party. She accused one of her fellow members of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission of misusing his office to do political work.
Some of the accusations proved true, but Palin was striking close to home. The person she accused was Randy Ruedrich, the chairman of the state Republican Party.
Ruedrich, who says he and the party are actively supporting Palin in the election, has refused her suggestion that he should resign.
"When Ms. Palin becomes governor, she will be a member of my 90-member executive committee," Ruedrich said in an interview. "I have one vote, and she has one vote in that 90-member body."
Adding to the tension is the candidacy of Andrew Halcro, who was a Republican during his two terms in the state House of Representatives and is running for governor as an independent. While Halcro, 42, trails far behind the others, opinions differ on whether he will draw more voters from Palin or Knowles.
Knowles talks confidently about the benefits of squeezing as much as 100 trillion cubic feet of natural gas deposits from the North Slope through a 48-inch pipeline for decades into the future. He says the project, estimated to cost more than $20 billion, could give the rest of Alaska's economy time to diversify, a long-sought goal many say was overlooked during the oil rush of the 1970s and 1980s.
Some economists have said that the state has already increased the tourism and cargo shipping industries, and they say that a gas pipeline, while a boost for the state, would not have the same kind of impact as the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline.
Palin, like Knowles, said she wanted the state to expand negotiations beyond BP, Exxon Mobil and Conoco Phillips, the three oil companies with which Governor Murkowski has been negotiating.
But Palin also recalled that the pipeline was a topic of discussion when she was a child and said that Knowles is being "disingenuous" when he says urgently that he wants pipeline proposals on his desk in the governor's office by Jan. 31, 2007.