THE outcome of two hard-fought races in Montana is likely to shape the future of this vast and sparsely populated state for a long time.
In one, two incumbent United States representatives - polar opposites in many ways - are fighting for the single seat the state was left with after redistricting. In the other, the next governor (who may be the first woman in the post) faces a state budget shortfall likely to force higher taxes.
But beyond the wrangling over government spending, environment, and abortion, there are more fundamental concerns about where Montana is headed at a time of considerable economic and social change.
"When you talk about either race, the question is what kind of state are we going to be, what kind of values will prevail?" says Thomas Payne, a retired professor of political science at the University of Montana. "Will it continue to be rugged, anything-goes, wide-open spaces, or a state that imposes more-rigorous standards on development and protects the environment?"
The congressional contest best illustrates the issue. Republican Ron Marlenee, a rancher from eastern Montana, is best known for opposing almost everything that Democrats, and much that Republicans, try to do on Capitol Hill.
He's proud, for example, of having "voted against every foreign aid appropriations bill since coming to Congress in 1977." He butts heads with environmentalists ("prairie fairies," he has called them) and says most congressional committee chairman are "dictators." He presents himself as "fighting for working men and women" in Montana's traditional industries, such as ranching, mining, and timber.
Opposing Mr. Marlenee is Democrat Pat Williams, who went to Congress two years later from the western, more mountainous part of the state. He is a moderate-to-liberal former school teacher who, as his party's deputy whip, helps carry out the con-gressional leadership's orders.
To stabilize Montana's boom-and-bust economy (currently in relatively good shape), he would invest more in infrastructure and education. Unlike his opponent, Mr. Williams has the full backing of abortion-rights groups. His is the only House race supported by the National Abortion Rights Action League.
Pro-choice groups (and national women's organizations) also are here to back the Democratic candidate for governor, Dorothy Bradley. Ms. Bradley is a lawyer and longtime state representative who first went to the state capital at Helena when she was 23 years old. She is opposed by Republican Marc Racicot, the state attorney general.
Mr. Racicot is pro-life and stresses "traditional family values." His campaign reminds voters that while Racicot and his wife have five children, Bradley is divorced and has no children.
But Bradley and Racicot's biggest challenge is how to deal with a series of budget crises that has gone on for over a decade and brought the part-time Legislature into special session twice so far during the current biennium.
BOTH candidates have called for a 4 percent sales tax. Racicot would use most of this new income to reduce other taxes and (together with cuts in some programs) to bring state spending in line with revenues. Bradley favors tax reform, too, but also advocates new spending for education, social programs, and local governments.
Politics in Montana, says Professor Payne, is marked by "ticket-splitting, volatility, and a great deal of fluidity." Three-quarters of the time since World War II, at least one chamber in the state Legislature has been controlled by the opposite party from the governor. (At the moment, both houses are controlled by Democrats and the retiring governor, Stan Stephens, is a Republican.)
For this reason, says veteran political reporter Jim Gransbery of the Billings Gazette, "the best bet ... lies with having a Democratic governor who can pull the Democratic Legislature through the eye of the needle on tax reform.
"With a Republican governor and a Democratic Legislature," he adds, "the Legislature will treat the governor the same way they did Stan Stephens for the past four years, which is with contempt."
A poll released by the Gazette last week showed Bradley and Racicot in a dead heat: the Democrat with 47 percent to the Republican's 45 percent, with 8 percent undecided and a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points. But what it also showed was momentum for Racicot. A similar poll in August had him down 9 points, with 23 percent undecided. "That's a major shift in undecideds toward Marc Racicot," says Mr. Gransbery.
In the congressional race, the same poll seems to indicate momentum in the other direction. It gave 50 percent to Democrat Williams, 40 percent to Republican Marlenee, and 10 percent undecided. In August, Marlenee was ahead 46 to 43.
While the race is far from over, this apparent favoring of the more moderate candidate may reflect recent demographic shifts in Montana. More professionals and retirees are moving into the state, most of them to the western portion, which has been sending Williams to Congress. Meanwhile, Marlenee's eastern district of farmers and ranchers has been losing population.
In any event, Montana (which fought and lost a court battle over redistricting) will be left with a dubious distinction: It will be the largest congressional district in the country - at 147,046 square miles - with the most number of people, at 799,065.