In Montana, a test case for control of the Senate


BOZEMAN, Mont. -- A huge outfitting store on the edge of this mountain-ringed town should be a conservative bastion: The ranchers and farmers who come to shop tend to be reliable Republicans.

But here at Murdoch's Ranch and Home Supply - amid the calf pens, muck buckets and bags of horse feed - there are signs of trouble for the GOP. And that could be bad news for the party from coast to coast.

Jack Bolender, a retiree who voted for three-term Sen. Conrad Burns because the Republican delivered mounds of federal aid to Montana, said he was deserting the incumbent in the state's 2006 election. Allegations that Burns was cozy with Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist central to a wide-ranging corruption scandal in Washington, has Bolender steamed.

"I appreciate what Burns brought to the state, but at what cost?" Bolender said one cold afternoon outside Murdoch's. "We seem to be selling out to the special interests."

Voters like Bolender are at the center of a political storm that threatens to roil this year's midterm elections. Democrats are trying to use the Abramoff scandal to tarnish Republicans. And there are few places where the effort is more intense than in Montana.

The state's news media have pummeled Burns for months over his every connection to the lobbyist, including contributions to the senator and expense-paid trips for his staff.

The Montana Democratic Party has been hammering him over the Abramoff ties in ads that began in August.

Montana has become a testing ground for how effectively Democrats can use the ethics issue to weaken GOP incumbents who would otherwise would be heavily favored to win re-election. The answer to that question will be key to whether - and to what extent - the party can gain Senate and House seats in November.

Some Republicans dismiss the Democratic strategy, insisting that few people outside Washington's Beltway have paid attention to the furor surrounding Abramoff, who in January pleaded guilty to bribery and bilking his clients.

But in Montana Abramoff has become practically a household name, much to Burns' chagrin.

Although most political professionals consider Burns a slight favorite to win re-election, recent polls showed that the double-digit lead he enjoyed last year has vanished. Some surveys show him tied or trailing his two leading Democratic opponents - state Auditor John Morrison and state Senate President Jon Tester.

Burns is fighting back with a vengeance, after months of letting Democrats' accusations about him go largely unanswered.

"The only thing they got in their sack is mud," he said as he criticized Democrats at a GOP dinner in Bozeman on Feb. 10. "They've got no ideas."

Burns recently saturated the Montana airwaves with the first television ad of his re-election campaign - a pointed rebuttal of the charges against him.

"I've worked in and around stockyards all my life," Burns said in the 60-second spot. "Those attack ads by Democrats - they're just a big bunch of you-know-what."

Defeating Burns is key to Democratic hopes of picking up the six seats they need to capture a majority in the Senate. Five Republican seats - in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Missouri and Tennessee - are considered toss-ups by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

So along with sweeping these races, Democrats would need to defeat Burns to win the Senate.

Montana, where more than 6 percent of the population is Native American, may be particularly troubled by the Abramoff case because most of the clients he cheated were Indian tribes.

The scandal has become so radioactive in the state that all three of its members of Congress - Burns, Democratic Sen. Max Baucus and Rep. Denny Rehburg, a Republican - have returned or given to charity donations that came from Abramoff or were funneled to them by his associates and clients. For himself, Burns calculated that amount totaled $150,000.

Burns is an improbable leading man for a Washington influence-peddling drama. At 71, the former Marine and trained auctioneer drives a 1996 Chevy pickup truck and is given to folksy, homespun wit.

But even before the Abramoff scandal exploded, Burns presented an inviting target to Democrats. After reneging on a pledge to serve only two terms, he narrowly won re-election in 2000 with 51 percent of the vote.

Burns said he never met Abramoff and was unaware of the lobbyist's connection to contributions from tribes to his political fundraising. "I don't know who Abramoff influenced, but he never influenced me," Burns said.

The senator has had a harder time brushing off connections between some of his aides and Abramoff.

In 2001, two of those went to the Super Bowl in Tampa on a private jet financed by an Abramoff company, a violation of Senate rules limiting gifts from lobbyists. The aides said they were told the trip was paid for by Abramoff's tribal clients, which would have been allowed because Native Americans are exempt from the congressional rules on gifts.

Also, two Burns aides - including one who went on the Super Bowl trip, left Capitol Hill to take jobs at lobbying firm where Abramoff worked.

The ethics issue has been taken up by Burns' leading Democratic opponents.

An Internet ad by Tester echoes the attack line Democrats have adopted nationally, saying, "There's a culture of corruption and cronyism in Washington. That has to end."

Burns toured Montana in recent weeks, trying to counter the criticism.

Secretary of State Brad Johnson, a Republican, said Burns' political offensive has helped quiet rumblings within the GOP. Some had begun to wonder whether the party would be better off if Burns retired and another candidate ran.

"Conrad has put that to rest," Johnson said. "The Marine has come out in him."

Janet Hook writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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