During the final televised debate before the August 19 primary election, no love was lost between the Republicans who hope to unseat Sen. Mark Begich.
But by the end of Thursday, it was clear Begich will likely be opposed by just one well-backed conservative candidate in November.
Even before Channel 2 cameras started rolling, tempers started flaring.
“Is Dan Sullivan here?” Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell said to no one in particular. He grinned and pressed his hands against the podium. “I heard he’s dropping out of the race after he missed that debate last night.”
The former attorney was general standing a step away. The joke was that Sullivan must have thrown in the towel because he sat out a Wednesday debate hosted by Alaska Public Media.
While Joe Miller was making small talk before the debate got under way, he offered a line that came amid a story never entirely told about an incident on the campaign trail.
“What planet am I on?” Miller said.
Treadwell cut in: “That’s a question a lot of people have asked."
The stage was set.
Over the next hour at the University of Alaska Anchorage, there was predictable last-minute posturing – all the candidates emphasized that they are varying shades of anti-amnesty, they described their desire for smaller federal government, they spoke of what the sanctity of life means to them.
And there were lip-furled mentions of Barack Obama, Mark Begich, Harry Reid and other fundamental trigger words, including fundamental, real conservatives and socialism.
Maybe refined, rehearsed talking points signal that the contentious campaign has nearly run its course, just as emotionally-charged moments may exemplify what has been a sometimes hostile primary campaign.
Dan Sullivan (right) reacts to Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell holding up a mailer. (Austin Baird / KTUU-TV)
When moderator Steve Mac Donald opened the floor for Treadwell to ask Sullivan a question, the lieutenant governor offered up a pointed criticism of what he called attack ads, something he said has become commonplace in recent weeks.
None seemed worse to Treadwell than a mailer deriding his "Washington doublespeak," which apparently included a photo of the lieutenant governor's face edited onto the body of another person.
Sullivan responded that Treadwell should shed no "crocodile tears" due to the attacks he has launched, including the time he was quoted saying there is a jar of mayonnaise in his cabinet that has been here longer than Sullivan.
Treadwell stood by that jab and asked when Sullivan caught his first legal salmon in Alaska.
"I believe it's a fair issue," Treadwell said. "The question of your residency here is an issue in this campaign."
A copy of the mailer that became a point of controversy during the debate. (Courtesy Mead Treadwell)
Sullivan continually steered conversation to Begich, Reid, Obama and the like, and he faded into the background while some of the most heated exchanges of the debate unfolded.
"I'm actually quite upset with the racist mailer that Joe sent out on this issue," Treadwell said, referring to an ad that recently drew the attention of liberal blogs. "You wanted to tell us that there should be no taxpayer-funded benefits, and I'm going to tell you right now, if somebody is bleeding in the streets...we need to help them."
Miller responded by speaking of people who have married into his family who were born in India, Indonesia and Mexico, and he said that immigration "is not a racism issue."
"This is about tearing apart the fabric of this nation by saying that we're going to allow illegals to come in, become voters," Miller said.
Miller and Treadwell also sparred over the United Nations Law of the Sea Treaty, which if ratified would give the U.S. more control over its waters, including those in the developing Arctic.
Sullivan literally took a step back and watched the "significant disagreement," as Miller called it, unfold in real time.
Miller: "You've been a lifelong proponent of the Law of the Sea Treaty. You think that's the pathway for the Arctic. I believe the pathway...is bilateral agreements with those nations that have Arctic regions within their coastlines."
Treadwell: "Alaskans fought for many provisions in the Law of the Sea," Treadwell said. "For you to dismiss it and question our patriotism for trying to move forward protections for Alaska I think is disgusting."
Miller: "I think it's disgusting, to be quite honest, that anyone would say because of money, we're going to give up sovereignty of the United States."
The whole time the conversation carried on, for about five minutes, Sullivan spoke for fewer than 10 seconds.
Dan Sullivan waits in the background while the camera focuses on Joe Miller. (Austin Baird / KTUU-TV)
While the focus of the night was how the candidates are different from one another, the debate closed with a sign that there will be no repeat of 2010, when Miller surprised the Alaska Republican establishment by winning the 2010 nomination, only to be bested by write-in candidate Lisa Murkowski in the general election.
Sullivan and Treadwell said they would support whoever wins the nomination.
And so did Miller, who was previously rumored to be weighing the possibility of running as an Independent if he lost the Republican nomination.
"I've never said this before," Miller said. "I believe I'm going to be the primary winner, but if one of you two guys win, I'll support you.
"We have to get rid of Mark Begich."