In this small farm town on the prairie, rebuilding a highway span that passes over a busy railroad track costs millions of dollars. Getting the money for that project and others is a big reason Sen. Conrad Burns remains popular.

“Conrad Burns is like a neighbor,” said Cynthia Johnson, a Republican county commissioner who credits the three-term GOP senator with securing millions for the state.

Burns, in the fight of his political life against Democrat Jon Tester, has been citing such home-state money and projects to try to convince voters that they should re-elect him. For many people in this expansive state, it appears to be reason enough.

Yet not everyone is on board.

Across town, at the Home Cafe on Main Street, 80-year-old Gordon Matheson says Burns is not honest. Matheson mentions Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist from Washington, D.C., who was convicted on federal corruption charges this year. Burns took, and has since given away, about $150,000 in campaign contributions from Abramoff.

Down the street, at the Super Dollar Store, 41-year-old clerk June Sasek mentions Abramoff as well.

Both Sasek and Matheson are voting for Tester.

The race has become a referendum on Burns, and he is not helped by the unhappy mood of voters. Many expressed frustration with President Bush, who received almost 60 percent of the vote in Montana two years ago; most believe the war in Iraq has gone on too long.

Burns has hurt his cause, his mouth getting him into plenty of trouble:

  • He cursed out a Virginia firefighting crew after they spent days battling Montana wildfires.
  • A proponent of tough immigration laws, he referred to an employee as a “little Guatemalan.”
  • He said the United States is threatened by faceless terrorist who “drive taxi cabs in the daytime and kill at night.”

Tester is an organic grain farmer with a flattop haircut whose name is recognized from his days as president of the state Senate. He is capitalizing on voter frustration and Burns’ gaffes, campaigning that it is time for change.

Tester has trailed Burns in fundraising — Burns had $5 million more than Tester at last count — but led the incumbent in several polls.

In the town of Polson, on the southern end of Flathead Lake, flower and wine shop owner Gerry Browning says she has not decided which candidate to support.

“Do I set aside my moral and ethical values to keep a man in office because he’s powerful?” the 55-year-old Browning asked.

Though she is leaning toward Tester, she echoes many other voters in wondering if corruption is an inevitable byproduct of political power.

“I’m not naive enough not to realize that’s what happens in Washington,” she says.

Up the road, in the Republican stronghold of Kalispell, not far from Glacier National Park, 59-year-old Snuff Frisbee and four of his friends talk politics over their morning coffee. Most of the men are voting for Burns. But they agree there is a palpable frustration among voters.

Frisbee says he probably will not vote for either Burns or Tester.

“We have a political malaise right now that has to do with the war, but it also has to do with illegal immigration, it has to do with four or five really important issues that this Congress has not even attempted to address,” says Frisbee, a financial adviser.


Montana is a fiercely independent state, though it typically leans Republican in presidential elections. Few voters interviewed wanted to identify themselves by party.

Burns is the only Republican to be elected senator from here in the past 50 years. In 2004, popular Democrat Brian Schweitzer became governor in a year that also saw his party make gains in the state Legislature.

Hoping to continue that trend, Democrats aired television ads on Abramoff starting in the summer of 2005. Burns responded to the ads last January, saying he was not influenced by the lobbyist.

Since then, most television ads have been negative: Burns has targeting Tester on his opposition to the Patriot Act and Democrats have hammered Burns on ethics and his comments to the firefighters.

In smaller towns, many people say they do not want a change in the state’s congressional delegation, which has built a considerable amount of seniority. Burns is chairman of the Senate spending committee that oversees environmental programs.

Burns “has made some mistakes, but he has served us very well and allowed us to have some advances in our state that probably wouldn’t have been possible if he didn’t have the connections he’s developed through the years,” says Carol Nelson, 57, owner of an interior design company and chairman of Kalispell’s Chamber of Commerce.

In Shelby, near the Canadian border in north-central Montana, Mayor Larry Bonderud agrees. He is a Republican voting for Burns, but also supports Democratic Sen. Max Baucus, who is not up for re-election this year.

Others have faith that Tester could help the state in the same way. In Glasgow, in eastern Montana, Larry Mires is the director of a group that is hoping for increased federal dollars for a crumbling water diversion system. He is undecided about the race and says Tester may have just as much ability as Burns to deliver.

In more Democratic Missoula, Juli Nilson, 34, is among those who believes Burns has worn out his welcome. The self-employed mother of two young sons is frustrated with dishonesty and corruption in both political parties.

“It’s the topic of my family’s conversations every time we get together,” she says.

Visiting Missoula from Big Sky, David Mayfield, 49, says he believes Burns is “on the take” and is not happy with the senator’s support for snowmobiling in Yellowstone National Park. A Republican during the Reagan era, Mayfield says he can no longer support the party.

“I think the center has moved,” he said.

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press

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