THANKS to a recent US Supreme Court interpretation of 1990 census data, one of the most closely watched congressional races in the nation this fall pits two veteran Montana lawmakers against one another.
Pat Williams (D) and Ron Marlenee (R) are both popular in their districts. But they couldn't be more different in their positions on key issues and - perhaps more important - basic philosophy on the role of government.
"It's a classic liberal-conservative matchup ... two colliding philosophies," says state Republican chair Susan Good.
Her rival across town in the state capital of Helena, Democratic Party chair Donna Small, agrees: "If you ever wanted a choice, this is it.... It's a year to be put down in the annals."
The race is important not only to Montanans, but to the national parties.
As a deputy whip, Representative Williams is part of the House leadership. A former teacher and champion of unions, he is an activist who believes that the federal government should take a lead role in such things as protecting the environment and financially supporting education. He is pushing an expanded student loan program designed to help the middle class. Price tag: $8 billion.
"The upcoming election is one of the most important of our lifetime," says Mr. Williams. "Not so much because of the candidates involved, but because of what it will say about the direction in which we want our state to go."
Attacking what he calls the "abusive and corrupting power of each committee chairman" in the Democratically controlled House, Representative Marlenee (a farmer and rancher who drives a pickup truck to work on Capitol Hill) has become one of the minority party pit bulls who votes "no" on just about everything Democrats propose.
This can even include things that most Republicans approve of, like the Clean Air Act.
"I want to be there when they tear the plaque of liberalism off the Congress of the United States," he said with glee in a meeting with reporters last week. "And I see that coming."
"Both men represent a clear ideological choice of what is the legitimate function of government," says Jim Gransbery, a veteran political reporter for the Billings Gazette who has covered Marlenee since he first went to Congress 16 years ago and Williams when he followed two years later. "This is going to be an old-fashioned back alley Butte [a mining town known for fighting] brawl - bare knuckles and winner-take-all."
Polls taken over the past year showed Williams with a slight edge. This may reflect Montana's changing demographics, which had Williams's western district gaining in population while Marlenee's to the east dropped. It's also due in part to a new kind of resident here: less likely to be tied to agriculture, timber, and mining (Montana's traditional industries) and more likely to work in service jobs, recreation, or tourism (now the second-ranking income producer), or be retired.
A poll of Montanans commissioned by the Billings Gazette and published last week has Williams with 44 percent, Marlenee with 36, and 20 percent undecided.
The high number of undecideds in a state where one is very apt to know his lawmaker personally also indicates a general grumbliness over congressional performance, which may work to Marlenee's advantage.
Although both men bounced checks at the House bank and both were relatively minor transgressors, the Democrat's offense was greater. (Williams wrote 66 bad checks totaling $35,479.12 in overdrafts; Marlenee wrote 20 checks for a total of $3,608.93.)
"We're both going through our check purgatory right now," says Joe Lamson, Williams's campaign manager. And Marlenee undoubtedly scored some points recently when he blasted his rival for supporting the controversial National Endowment for the Arts. Williams chairs the subcommittee that oversees the NEA.
On the other hand, Marlenee declares himself "absolutely in the pro-life camp" on abortion, even though another Billings Gazette poll last week showed Montanans by more than 2 to 1 would vote for a pro-choice candidate.
This "clash of the titans," as state Republican chief Susan Good calls it, came about when redistricting cost Montana one of its two congressional seats. Many here think it's unfair, because the state still has some 200,000 people more than the average congressional district.
Campaigning in a state 20 times the size of New Jersey is tough. Whoever wins in November will have a big job. From corner to corner, Montana spreads as far as from Chicago to the Chesapeake Bay. Its 803,655 people are spread over 145,000 square miles in 200 small cities and towns and seven distinct media markets. Montanans, who like to look their public servants straight in the eye before voting for them, are so spread out the state has 112 one-room school houses.
But wide-open spaces make no difference when it comes to the House of Representatives rules on providing staff and other resources for constituent services back home.