Video: Montana Senate race

By Tom Brokaw Correspondent
NBC News
updated 10/12/2006 7:09:02 PM ET 2006-10-12T23:09:02

It's homecoming at Montana State University, and Sen. Conrad Burns has a hard ride in rough weather in his re-election campaign.

Charges of Republican Party corruption, growing doubts about Iraq and a general feeling Washington is dysfunctional have given Democrat Jon Tester, a farmer and state legislator, a seven-point lead in the latest poll.

Montana is no longer a solid red, Republican state.

President Bush carried the state of Montana twice by a wide margin, but these days, Montanans are not giving his administration any parades.

"I think there's a sense, not just in Montana, but in the country, that people in Washington, D.C., have not been playing straight when it comes to the war in Iraq or the war against terrorism," says Jim Gransberry, a columnist for the Billings Gazette.

Burns supports the president's policies on Iraq. Tester wants to find a formula to get out.

Yet, even though this is yellow ribbon country, Iraq is not the No. 1 topic.

What's going to be the defining issue in this race?

"I think the way we look at taxation and taxes, especially here in Montana," says Burns, "and I think the way we use our natural resources, that sort of thing."

"Kitchen table issues like energy and health care are huge issues," counters Tester. "I think honesty and integrity is a base line issue."

That's Tester's big theme. Burns was identified as the No. 1 recipient of campaign funds from the disgraced Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, now awaiting a federal prison sentence.

Burns insists that he has weathered the worst of the attacks.

"The issues, we're on the right side of the issues," he says. "We're on the right side for Montana."

The GOP has struck back by sending in party all-stars like first lady Laura Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to campaign with Burns. And he's raised $7 million, more than $100 for every voter in the state.

At one point, Republicans accused Tester of having a conservative haircut but liberal values.

He says, if elected, he won't change that haircut.

But in the end, this race may not be settled by haircuts or the debates or the ads.

In the end, for Burns and other GOP candidates across the country, the toughest opponent may be their own party after six years of White House and congressional rule.

Sven Mauland, a lifelong Republican, was sheriff of Sweetgrass County for 30 years and he's disappointed in the president.

"They showed him there were no weapons of mass destruction," says Mauland, "and he still insists they're there, basically. I mean, when you can't admit you're wrong, something's wrong. I am an old Republican. And I'll probably vote a lot of Republican. But I'm going to change some votes this year."

There's a tough road ahead for the Republican incumbent in Big Sky Country.

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