As Jon Tester crisscrosses Montana, he chats with voters about his wheat farm, discusses energy independence and healthcare, and stresses a single point: integrity.
Montana, the Democrat insists, is ready for a change from Sen. Conrad Burns, the Republican who has served the state for 18 years. Beloved for bringing home big federal dollars, Senator Burns was also the recipient of nearly $150,000 in campaign donations from convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff – and Mr. Tester is not about to let Montana voters forget it.
Tester's strategy of making Burns himself the issue seems to be working: Polls now show the farmer/state senator with a slight edge over the incumbent, lifting Democrats' hopes of adding a key seat in their quest to gain control of the US Senate.
In large part, "the election will depend on [Montanans'] evaluation of Senator Burns," says Christopher Muste, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Montana. "Whether, when they go into the voting booth, they're thinking about his problems with the Abramoff scandal and off-the-cuff embarrassing comments he's made, or if they're thinking about the material things he's brought to the state from the federal government."
A former agricultural reporter and livestock enthusiast, Burns has an easy Montana charm. He moves comfortably among his constituents – most of whom call him "Conrad" – and asks distant acquaintances about their parents and children, almost all of whom he seems to remember.
He reminds residents of the $2 billion in federal money he's brought to the state and his coveted seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee. "I've got a little investment here I want to see," he told reporters last week as he toured the new $8 million control tower at the Billings airport.
From the top, Burns admired the view and pointed out where his own house was, on "Alkali Crick." "It's not very big and it ain't very fancy, but it's somewhere to go when it's raining," he said in his drawl. "No matter where you live in Montana, we identify by the crick you live on."
That off-the-cuff style, though, has also gotten Burns into trouble. He called Arabs "ragheads" in a 1999 speech, for instance. His response to a rancher's racist comment about living in the majority-black city of Washington was hardly high-end senatorial: It's "one hell of a challenge," he replied, back in 1994.
Some Montanans shrug off his rough-hewn language with a laugh, noting he's "not a diplomat." But when Burns used crude language to dress down some Virginia firefighters in the Billings airport this summer, many people here were furious. Some admit to being tired of his comments and the Abramoff connections – and of worrying about Montana's public image.
Tester, meanwhile, is capitalizing on his Montana roots. A third-generation wheat farmer with a flat-top haircut and big belly, he hardly fits the image of the Washington senator. But in the Rocky Mountain West, that can be an advantage. "Isn't it time we make the Senate look a little bit more like Montana?" he asks in one commercial.
He's against gun control and gay marriage, and for the death penalty, which are all political requirements in Mountain states. But he's also a populist candidate who speaks eloquently about the need for opportunity and a debt-free future for children, for affordable healthcare and boosts for small businesses and the middle class, and for a plan to withdraw from Iraq.
A former music teacher and custom butcher, Tester recently took five days off from campaigning to harvest crops on his 1,800-acre farm, and has an easy laugh and smile when he meets voters – a staple of campaigning in a state where retail politics is what wins elections. But he gets serious when he starts talking about the values that he says are the background of this election.
"It's all underpinned by honesty and ethics," he says in an interview. "I think people are very concerned by the culture of corruption back in Washington, D.C."
Burns dismisses those charges angrily, telling Tester in a recent heated debate in Billings, Burns's hometown, "Jon, you've dribbled this out for the last 18 months – and there's nothing there."
But some Montanans are listening.
"Conrad Burns has embarrassed Montana long enough," says Valerie McMurtry, a special-ed teacher in Billings, wearing a Jon Tester sticker as she waits in line to see the Billings debate. She used to consider herself an Independent before Burns turned her into a Democrat, she adds. "Time magazine called him the first of the worst." Burns himself has noted his tendency toward flip comments, once joking that he "can self-destruct in one sentence – sometimes in one word."
Burns instead tries to remind constituents of his seniority in the Senate and paints his opponent as a tax-raiser who's far too liberal for Montana, which President Bush won by 20 percentage points in 2004.
"The Senate already has one Ted Kennedy, and if Tester is elected it will have a second," says Jason Klindt, Burns's spokesman. The polls, he says, don't worry him. "Voters will take a look at both candidates and see Conrad Burns is the only one with the seniority, experience, and effectiveness to get things done for Montana."
That's the case with some staunch Burns supporters, many of whom dismiss the Abramoff charges as overblown or simply a reality of politics. "If the money doesn't go to us, it'll go to New York or California," says Bernie Hedrick, a court-services worker. "We've got two very powerful people in [Democratic Senator Max] Baucus and Burns."
Still, while Montana may be "red" in presidential elections, it's demonstrated a willingness to vote for its own Mountain version of Democrats, with a popular Democratic governor and a Democratic legislature. And Tester's home-grown approach seems to be working.
"He's a rancher and hard worker and that's my style," says Jeff, a physical therapist at St. Vincent Healthcare who did not give his last name. He says that after shaking Tester's hand he's decided to vote for him. "Burns is not so much connected to Montana anymore – he's lost where he's come from."