In politics, party loyalty is more important than integrity, which explains why North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole is on the campaign trail Wednesday in Montanadefending scandal-ridden Republican Sen. Conrad Burns, ignoring the Senator’s latest slurs against immigrants and claiming that voting him out of office would be a “disaster.”

Dole heads of Senate Republicans’ campaign committee and that means she stands up and defends anyone, no matter how corrupt, as long as they fly the Republican banner. She there she was in Missoula raising money and attending public events with Burns, who is in a tight race for re-election against Democrat Jon Tester.

Tester’s campaign this week released video of Burns referring to his house painter as “a nice little Guatemalan man” and suggested that worker as well as employees of a roofing company he hired might be in the country illegally. Burns campaign said the worker is a legal citizen and the senator never doubted that. They also said the worker, Hugo Reyes, is small in stature.

In a telephone interview, Dole called the flap over Burns’ comments “a silly thing.”

“Most people who know him understand that he’s a guy who has a sense of humor and sometimes that can be mistaken,” she said. “He’ll say himself that he has misspoken. But the bottom line is that he is such a fighter for his state … he absolutely focuses on the state of Montana.”

Dole called Tester a “classic liberal” and criticized his positions on energy and gay marriage, among other issues.

Tester opposes drilling for oil in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, while Burns supports it. He opposed a constitutional ban on gay marriage, which Burns also supports.

“I don’t think he’s ready for the Senate,” Dole said. “Trading Conrad Burns for John Tester would be a disaster.”

Tester spokesman Matt McKenna fired back.

“The only one of Burns’ Washington friends that hasn’t been hauled out here to help save his job is Jack Abramoff, and he’s on his way to the Crowbar Hotel,” McKenna said.

Democrats have played up Burns’ ties to lobbyist Abramoff, who was convicted on federal corruption charges earlier this year. Burns’ campaign took about $150,000 in donations from Abramoff, his clients and associates, all of which he has since returned or given to charity. The lobbyist later told Vanity Fair magazine that his firm got every appropriation they wanted from the Interior spending committee, of which Burns is chairman.

Dole said Burns’ gaffes should not be the primary issue in the race.

“We may not know what he might say, but what matters is that he always votes for Montana,” she said.

Recent polls have showed the race, which is one of the most competitive in the country, as tied or with Tester leading.

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press