LEWISTOWN, Mont. -- E-mailing underage boys might be the most original sin of this campaign season, but in Big Sky country, folks are talking about the old-fashioned sleaze that Jack Abramoff spread around.
An iron law of modern elections holds that incumbents lose only in the very rarest of circumstances, such as illness or scandal. This year, scandal is anything but rare.
The scandal factor "is big," said political scientist Barry C. Burden of the University of Wisconsin, and it could cost Republicans control of one or both houses of Congress. "The Republicans have a very slim majority. It doesn't take very many seats or very much of an effect for these things to matter."
Voter anger over the congressional page sex scandal and the Republican leadership's handling of it could be enough to tip a number of close races to the Democrats. A seemingly endless stream of bad news for Republicans - in Pennsylvania last week, the FBI raided the office of a Republican congressman's daughter - has analysts predicting that a fed-up electorate is ready to put Democrats back in charge.
This month, Republican Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio became the first member of Congress to plead guilty in connection with his dealings with lobbyist Abramoff, who is cooperating with authorities after pleading guilty to charges of conspiring to corrupt public officials. House Republican Leader Tom DeLay of Texas resigned last spring after a former aide who had gone to work for Abramoff pleaded guilty to conspiracy and corruption charges. Their seats are considered prime prospects for Democratic pickups.
Democratic candidates, too, face allegations of corruption, including in New Jersey, where Sen. Robert Menendez is in a tight race. But with Republicans in charge of Congress, and the Abramoff and Foley scandals focused mainly on Republicans, the GOP is likely to be hurt more, analysts have said.
Events in other states have helped keep the ethics issue alive in the Montana Senate contest, one of the hottest in the country, which appears to be breaking the Democrats' way. Democratic challenger Jon Tester, in an interview, called the Abramoff scandal "the underpinning of the race."
According to news reports, Burns is under investigation by the Justice Department. The senator hired a criminal defense attorney in Washington last spring but has denied any wrongdoing.
The Republican incumbent has tried to shift the focus to his Senate seniority, which, he says, has generated $2 billion in federal aid for his state. On a recent, snowy morning in Great Falls, the senator hopscotched from an event with White House drug czar John P. Walters, who lavishly praised Burns' work in fighting methamphetamine use, to a dedication ceremony for a new Customs and Border Protection air wing that will guard the Canada border, to an Agriculture Department grant ceremony.
But Burns has hurt himself with a series of gaffes, such as lashing out at a crew of Virginia firefighters last summer at the Billings airport. The senator told them they had done a "piss poor" job on a major fire in southern Montana and later said they "didn't do a ... damned thing" and had just sat around. He was forced to issue an apology.
Last week, Burns drew derisive laughter during a televised campaign debate when he announced that President Bush has a secret strategy to end the Iraq war. "I think he's got one, but he's not going to tell everyone in the whole world," the Republican said.
Democrats, meanwhile, are clogging TV and radio with attack ads that accuse the senator of doing Abramoff's bidding, rather than his home state's. Turning around Burns' claim that he "delivers for Montana," the ads, which feature Abramoff's dark visage in a fedora hat, charge Burns with "delivering for Jack Abramoff. Not us."
Burns got more money than any other member of Congress from Abramoff and his associates - $150,000 - as part of what prosecutors called an influence-peddling scheme by the lobbyist. He has since returned the money.
Abramoff told Vanity Fair magazine this year, "Every appropriation we wanted, we got" from Burns' committee. "I mean, it's a little difficult for him to run from that record."
In an interview, Burns called the Abramoff allegations "an old issue" and said he's counting on the vaunted Republican Party turnout operation to help win him another term. Calling it "a tough year" for Republicans, he said the biggest problem he faces is "how people view Washington, D.C., right now, you know?"
In Lewistown, a thriving community of 6,000 in the rugged ranch country of central Montana, random interviews suggest that the senator's support is cracking in one of the most conservative parts of the state.
"He took money for influence," said Ruth Harbour, a pharmacist, who voted for Burns last time but is likely to go Democratic next month. "He's good for the state, but I don't like him personally."
Randy Barber, a sheep and cattle rancher, says he's leaning toward Burns but thinks that Abramoff, the war in Iraq, Bush's unpopularity and a sense that the senator has "lost touch with Montana" might cost him his seat.
Retired dentist Tim Cablish, a Republican, thinks "corruption is just rampant in D.C." and was offended by Burns' remarks to the firefighters, because his son is a firefighter. He is voting for Tester, who has called for repeal of the Patriot Act. "People have fallen into the trap of trading freedom for security," said Cablish.
The latest statewide poll by Montana State University, Billings found that 13 percent of likely voters didn't consider Burns' relationship to Abramoff an issue. Almost three-fourths of those polled thought it was a problem.
"It's not over in Montana," said Craig Wilson, who directed the poll, "but at this point it's definitely leaning Democratic."
While Burns struggles to salvage his job, Wilson added, "maybe [Tester] can just go back to the farm and get on a tractor and ride it out."
The burly, 50-year-old challenger, with his flat-top haircut and bulging belly, would cut an unlikely figure in the staid Senate chamber if he knocks off the 18-year incumbent. The state's popular Democratic governor, Brian Schweitzer, has made a TV spot with Tester that praises the Senate candidate's "broad shoulders" and Montana "soul."
Tester is playing his self-described dirt-farmer roots to the hilt. Campaign ads show him hauling a hay bale, and reporters and photographers have beaten a well-worn trail to his farm, surrounded by distant mountain ranges not far from the sweeping curves of the upper Missouri River. On his 1,800 acres, he grows specialized strains of wheat, barley and other organic crops and maintains the family butcher shed where, as a 9-year-old, he lost the middle three fingers on his left hand while grinding hamburger.
Tester's campaign, which wants to maintain a Montana focus against a longtime senator it claims has "gone Washington," has kept prominent national Democrats away from the state, but former Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia made a stop in Billings last week. Cleland, a triple amputee, took note of Tester's missing fingers and cracked, "At least he won't be putting his hand in the till like someone we know."
To counter Tester's charge that Burns is "in the pocket of the K Street lobbyists," the incumbent is running an endorsement ad by former Republican Gov. Marc Racicot, now a $1 million-a-year trade association executive in the nation's capital.
Burns is the "same honest and decent man we've always known," Racicot says. In a tacit acknowledgment of what polls show - that some Republicans and independents are abandoning Burns this fall - Racicot urges Montanans to "think twice."
The 71-year-old senator, looking vigorous and sounding upbeat as the toughest race of his career nears an end, is trying to link his state's growing economy and low unemployment rate to his success in gaining funds for local projects.
"We hope that people vote their pocketbooks," Burns told 75 supporters at a Republican "Harvest Dinner" in Lewistown the other night. In booming Gallatin County, on Yellowstone National Park's northern fringe, McDonald's restaurants are paying $10 an hour, he said. "And you get a signing bonus."
"I went down and picked up an application. You bet," the senator added.
"Just in case," piped up a man in the Republican audience.