Sen. Conrad Burns and Democrat Jon Tester were locked in a tight contest early Wednesday, as the Republican struggled to return to Washington for a fourth term.

Burns, 71, first elected in 1988 as a folksy, backslapping outsider, was under siege because of his ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and because of his own gaffes — including an incident in which he cursed at firefighters.

With 99 percent of precincts reporting Wednesday, Tester had 194,914 votes, or 48.9 percent, and Burns had 193,179 votes, or 48.5 percent.

A candidate in Montana can request a recount at his own expense if the margin is within half of a percent, which would be a margin of roughly 2,000 votes in the Montana U.S. Senate race. If the margin is less than one-quarter of a percent, the state and counties pick up the tab.

Tester, the state Senate president and a farmer, sounded confident in early morning television interviews. “I like the position we are in, I think we are going to win,” Tester told CNN.

During the campaign, Tester hammered Burns for his ties to Abramoff and what Tester called the “culture of corruption” in Washington. Burns was a top recipient of campaign contributions from Abramoff, who pleaded guilty in January to corruption. Burns has since returned or donated a

bout $150,000, and has maintained he did nothing wrong and was never influenced by Abramoff.

Tester resisted help from the national party, saying he wanted to run his campaign his way. He brought in few national party figures, instead relying on rallies with popular Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Sen. Max Baucus.

Burns, meanwhile, was joined on the trail over the past few weeks by GOP luminaries including President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

Tester, 50, surprised many in the state when he beat a better-financed and better-known Democrat in the June primary.

This time around, it was Tester who portrayed himself as the Washington outsider — a Western moderate Democrat who owns guns, opposes gay marriage and has a libertarian’s suspicion of the anti-terrorism Patriot Act.

“It really is proof positive that Montanans are ready for a change,” told CBS’ “The Early Show” Wednesday while the race was still too narrow to call. “We need to take some Montana values back to Washington.”

Tester stood out, with his scuffed cowboy boots and flattop haircut. One of his hands lacks three fingers, lost long ago in an accident with a meat grinder.

Burns focused his campaign on his ability as a veteran senator to bring federal money to the state, and portrayed Tester as a liberal who wants to raise taxes and “cut and run” from Iraq.

Burns took heat after confronting members of a wildfire-fighting team at the Billings airport in late July and saying they had done a poor job, according to a state report and the U.S. Forest Service. The Hotshot crew had traveled from Virginia to help dig lines around a fire east of Billings.

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press