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Democrats pinning their hopes on the heartland

POMPEYS PILLAR, Mont.—Wearing a white cowboy hat and black cowboy boots, Sen. Conrad Burns snipped a ribbon to mark the opening of the new visitor center at Pompeys Pillar National Monument, then proclaimed it a big day for his home state of Montana.

"It's nice to see this come to fruition," Burns said. "It's just nice to see part of your vision."

But Burns, a Republican senator since 1989, is in big political trouble this year, thanks largely to his ties to Jack Abramoff. Abramoff is the convicted superlobbyist who contributed $150,000 to Burns and then boasted that he got everything he wanted from the Interior appropriations subcommittee headed by the senator.

With his approval rating at 37 percent, Burns is trying to win a fourth term by reminding voters that his seniority has helped funnel more than $2 billion in federal money to the state, including $4.9 million for the visitor center. Democrats would rather focus on his ties to Abramoff, who's pleaded guilty to charges of fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials.

"He not only delivers for Montana—he delivers for Indian tribes in Michigan," said Jon Tester, an organic farmer who won the Democratic primary and will face Burns in November, making a reference to one of Abramoff's clients.

With the election only three months away, Democrats need to win toss-up races in the nation's heartland—Senate contests in Montana, Minnesota, Missouri and Ohio—if they have any hopes of seizing control of Congress.

Their chances of taking both houses of Congress, while still a long shot, are improving, a result of widespread public dissatisfaction. In a new report, the head of the Washington-based Cook Political Report predicts that the climate for Republicans will be "extremely hostile" in November and says all traditional indicators in recent days show numbers consistent with "an electoral rout."

Democrats are particularly excited in the Big Sky State, where folks are busy debating whether their senator is a crook.

In an interview at Pompeys Pillar, a monument that marks where William Clark etched his name in stone during the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1806, Burns maintained his innocence. He said, "Democrats want to hang Jack Abramoff around my neck," but he noted that he's returned all the lobbyist's contributions.

Of Abramoff, Burns said: "He's a man that lied to the world and is going to go to jail. I did nothing wrong, broke no law. ... He was a bad guy and he got caught. And the system got him."

Burns acknowledged that the furor over Abramoff has "played a little bit" in his race, but he predicted that he'll win.

"I'll have a tough race," he said. "I always do. But you know, people have known Conrad Burns a long time. And my word has always been good. ... I've never lied. And I never lose the faith in the people of Montana. I'll never do that."

"There isn't anybody in the government that isn't involved with some crooked individuals in this country. ... And anybody who believes that the Democrats are honest and that Conrad Burns is a crook is just as big a crook as they think he is," huffed Norman Shay, a retired building-maintenance worker from Laurel who plans to vote for Burns.

Burns, Montana's longest-serving Republican senator, ranks 99th among the 100 senators in popularity among voters, according to Survey USA, which tracks approval ratings. Last month, only Colorado Republican Sen. Wayne Allard ranked lower than Burns. Burns has the highest disapproval rating, at 57 percent.

Burns dug a deeper hole for himself recently when he approached a wilderness firefighting crew in the Billings airport and criticized them as doing a poor job, accusing one of "not doing a Goddamned thing." He quickly apologized, and Democrats noted that he has a history of putting his foot in his mouth. (He's apologized in the past for racial slurs against blacks and Arabs.)

Even though President Bush carried Montana handily in 2004, the state represents one of the two or three best opportunities for Democrats to gain ground in the Senate this year, according to Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the Cook Political Report.

"Burns has multiple problems," she said. "This would be a tough race even without Abramoff."

For starters, Burns is sticking around much longer than he promised. In 2000, he won by a slim margin after breaking a pledge to serve only two terms. Tester, a former music teacher who's now the president of the state Senate, has been making hay on the issue.

"Conrad Burns is a guy who said he was going to spend two terms and then he was going to be gone," Tester said in an interview on his farm near Big Sandy. "He's going after his fourth one now. It's funny how when you go to Washington you go back there to change Washington and Washington ends up changing you. And that's exactly what happened to Conrad Burns."

On a recent Sunday morning, Tester looked anything but senatorial—greasy, sweaty and wearing jeans and an eight-year-old T-shirt filled with holes—as he worked with his wife on a combine on his farm, 60 miles from the Canadian border. The son of a farmer, Tester lost three fingers in a meat-cutting accident when he was 9 years old, and he became a butcher himself as a way to supplement his farm income. Tester has a crew cut, and Republicans have been making fun of his hair in television ads.

"He comes across as a very authentic person, a guy who really knows who he is, and I think that's very valued these days. ... He's just a real person," said Democrat Max Baucus, Montana's senior senator. He said Tester's chances of winning were very good, but he predicted a horse race.

"Conrad is hard-working," Baucus said. "He has had close races in the past and he's won them. He's a very resilient kind of guy."

Smelling blood, the state Democratic Party has begun airing television ads criticizing Burns as out of touch with Montanans, linking him to Abramoff every chance it gets. In one of the ads, Burns also is criticized for collecting more than $517,000 from oil and gas companies and then voting to give the companies billions of dollars in tax breaks.

"Casino Jack Abramoff got everything he wanted from Burns, while Montanans get $3 gas," said Jim Farrell, the executive director of the Montana Democratic Party. "Montanans are tired of loaning out one of their U.S. senators to a convicted felon."

Duffy predicted that Burns will lose the race. What's most telling, she said, is that Burns has been running television ads since January and has been unable to change his level of support. Tester is leading in public polls by a small margin, and Duffy said it would take "something fairly dramatic" to change the dynamics.

"If he or any of his former employees are indicted, then I think the party might have a window to replace him," Duffy said of Burns. "Then we'd have a whole new race on our hands."

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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