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Last Update: June 11, 2008 12:27 PM

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GOVERNOR'S RACE: Gas line leaves no room to talk on other hot issues.

So far, the question of which candidate would do the best job bringing Alaska a natural gas pipeline -- and the next economic boom -- has swallowed the focus of the entire governor's race.

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But the reality of the long-wished for, often-promised pipeline is that no matter who wins, it won't be built for a long time -- if ever.

What about the social issues that Alaskans, especially the party faithful who often decide primary elections, may find important? How do they feel about guns? Drugs? Religion? Which one believes people choose to be gay? Or once called abortion an "atrocity"?

Incumbent Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski and two-term Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles have been in the public eye for years but some of their opponents, while popular, are still a mystery to many voters.

Here's what Murkowski, Knowles and the rest of the leading candidates -- Democrat Eric Croft, Independent Andrew Halcro and Republicans John Binkley and Sarah Palin -- have to say about three hot-button topics: marijuana, abortion and same-sex marriage.

As for firearms, another big issue among conservatives, none of the candidates say they're about to take Alaskans' guns away. The three Republicans and Croft all are members of the National Rifle Association, which champions gun rights. Knowles says he would strongly defend the Second Amendment, while Halcro said that he received high marks from the NRA as a state lawmaker and that his rental car business donates to the association's gun-safety program.

MARIJUANA

Even in a state known for its liberal marijuana laws, a governor can make a big difference, as Murkowski did when he made recriminalizing the possession of small amounts of pot a priority for his administration.

He signed a law outlawing it, even less then 4 ounces in private homes, on June 2, though a Superior Court judge struck down part of the new, tighter rules last month.

Murkowski said it's not that he's so concerned about mature adults, but that he doesn't want young people exposed to a drug that he says has grown more potent and dangerous in recent years.

Murkowski said he's never smoked marijuana and never been tempted. "The answer is no, no, no. It's pretty simple."

Palin doesn't support legalizing marijuana, worrying about the message it would send to her four kids. But when it comes to cracking down on drugs, she says methamphetamines are the greater threat and should have a higher priority.

Palin said she has smoked marijuana -- remember, it was legal under state law, she said, even if illegal under U.S. law -- but says she didn't like it and doesn't smoke it now.

"I can't claim a Bill Clinton and say that I never inhaled."

Binkley said he too supported tightening Alaska's marijuana rules because the drug has grown more potent. "I believe based on some of the medical evidence that was brought forward that it is a public safety issue."

Binkley is an adventurous guy. He's raced boats and snowmachines and drove a motorcycle from Prudhoe Bay to Argentina. But smoked pot?

"You know, the past of youth indiscretions probably aren't an issue in this campaign," he said during a brief interview on July 14.

Told that sounded like a "yes," he laughed, but wouldn't elaborate.

Halcro said that if the governor and state Legislature put half as much effort into combating methamphetamines as they did passing an "unnecessary" law to recriminalize pot, Alaska would be a healthier, safer place.

Halcro doesn't want to legalize marijuana, but said he disagreed with the law Murkowski signed because it violated the state's privacy clause.

Asked if he's ever smoked pot, Halcro said it was an inappropriate question and wouldn't answer. What he did say was: "We were all young once. I mean, I grew up in the '70s."

Knowles said he supports the constitutional right to privacy that protects a small amount of marijuana in private homes, and said the state has better ways to spend its public safety money.

"We have an urgent need to use public safety resources for the meth labs that we know are out of control, the gang violence in urban areas and for rural villages that have no public safety service at all," he said.

When running for governor in 1990, Knowles acknowledged smoking marijuana decades earlier when he was in the Army, but said he hadn't touched it since serving in public office.

Croft also said the state should focus on meth before pot.

"Methamphetamines are so much more addictive and destructive, and I worry about government using any justification to get into our homes," he said.

Has he smoked pot? "Yeah. I tried it in college. I didn't particularly like it," he said. "It made me feel stupid."

ABORTION

Halcro's wife is the former director of marketing and public affairs for Planned Parenthood, which supports a woman's right to choose abortion. He is Catholic but supports abortion rights and says the key to reducing abortions is strong prevention and education programs.

Halcro talks about abortion as a privacy issue and said that laws that seek to restrict abortions never seem to work.

"The stories that you hear about the 15-year-old girl in the village getting raped by her uncle, who has a history of mental illness -- what do you do then?" he asked.

In 2002, when she was running for lieutenant governor, Palin sent an e-mail to the anti-abortion Alaska Right to Life Board saying she was as "pro-life as any candidate can be" and has "adamantly supported our cause since I first understood, as a child, the atrocity of abortion."

Palin said last month that no woman should have to choose between her career, education and her child. She is pro-contraception and said she's a member of a pro-woman but anti-abortion group called Feminists for Life.

"I believe in the strength and the power of women, and the potential of every human life," she said.

Knowles supports abortion rights and said abortion is "absolutely" a privacy issue. Government should not stand between a woman and her doctor, he said.

Croft expressed an almost identical view. "The closer you get to (fetal) viability, the more that changes," he said. "But I think we ought to respect Alaskans' privacy."

Binkley said he believes abortion should only be legal when the life of the mother is in jeopardy.

"There is sanctity of life from conception until natural death," he said.

Murkowski said he's a practicing Catholic and is anti-abortion except in cases of incest, rape or when the life of the mother is threatened.

In July 2004, he signed a law that required doctors to inform women who are seeking abortions about alternatives to the procedure. They could do so by referring the women to a state Web site.

Critics said the governor was breaking a 2002 campaign pledge not to change state abortion policy. The next month, Murkowski wrote in a Daily News opinion piece that: "I am strongly pro-life, I have been consistently pro-life, and I have never changed my beliefs."

GAY MARRIAGE

In October, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled the state couldn't deny spousal benefits to the same-sex partners of public employees. That means that while Alaska has banned gay marriage, it can't withhold, say, health insurance from a state employee's gay partner.

Binkley, who believes that people choose to be gay rather than being born that way, said he disagreed with that decision. The constitutional amendment that voters passed 2-to-1 in 1998 to ban gay marriage was clear, he said -- the definition of marriage is the union of a man and a woman.

"The people of Alaska should have the opportunity to vote on that issue and clarify what their intent was with the amendment that they passed," Binkley said.

Croft said the Supreme Court was right to allow benefits for same-sex couples and that he voted against the 1998 constitutional amendment.

"I don't understand why two people expressing their love for each other affects my marriage," said Croft, who has been married for 13 years.

Does he think people choose to be gay?

"I don't care. It's none of my business, really," Croft said. "I grew up in an Alaska where you didn't really inquire too much into people's personal lives."

Knowles says the state should be looking for ways to increase health care, not deny it, and the Supreme Court made the right call in allowing benefits for homosexual couples.

"Two people who are obeying the law should be protected by it," he said.

Knowles said he believes that some people choose to be gay, some simply are and that he's fine with both. "It's part of their rights as a human being."

Palin said she's not out to judge anyone and has good friends who are gay, but that she supported the 1998 constitutional amendment.

Elected officials can't defy the court when it comes to how rights are applied, she said, but she would support a ballot question that would deny benefits to homosexual couples.

"I believe that honoring the family structure is that important," Palin said.

She said she doesn't know if people choose to be gay. Asked the same question, Murkowski said essentially the same: "I don't know."

Murkowski has called the Supreme Court's ruling that Alaska must provide benefits to employees' same-sex partners "shameful."

"I believe that people have the right to make a choice, but on the other hand, I believe in the sanctity of marriage," he said in late July.

For Halcro, the 1998 constitutional amendment on marriage and the question of spousal benefits for same-sex partners are two very different issues.

Halcro says he believes people do not choose to be gay. He said the state has the right to define marriage -- and he supported the amendment 8 years ago -- but that the state doesn't have the right to deny benefits.

"You don't have the ability to pick and choose who you can discriminate against."