BOZEMAN and BILLINGS, Mont. - For almost two decades, Republican Sen. Conrad Burns has held the ear of his constituents. But over the last several months, the folksy 71-year-old Montanan may have lost his grip-tossing a whirring chainsaw into the GOP's increasingly tenuous juggling act to maintain majorities in both House and Senate.
Burns raised his arms and waved them vigorously during a recent debate at Bozeman's Montana State University, attempting in vain to stem an outburst of giggles emanating from the standing-room-only crowd. The staunch supporter of President Bush might have expected such reaction to his remarks on the need for the Patriot Act. Attempts to paint the chilling realities of terrorism are met with rolling eyes and mirth-filled mockery on many campuses.
Democratic challenger Jon Tester was ready to give the room what it wanted: "We're taking freedoms away from honest people," he said of the Patriot Act, reiterating his consistent call for its repeal. Unlike Burns, who fought the crowd at every turn and often sounded desperate with cliché-filled diatribes, Tester spoke with calm surety and controlled the estimated 1,200 audience members with ease.
Polling data reveal that Tester's command of the electorate stretches well beyond university campuses. With the election less than a month away, Zogby, Rasmussen, and Gallup all put Tester ahead of Burns in recent surveys. The latest figures, from a Mason-Dixon poll in late September, show Tester leading 47-40-a sizable advantage in a race once considered too close to call.
Burns, with a penchant for spurning political correctness, is largely to blame for the sudden disparity in the polls, tripping on his tongue with considerable regularity over the past several months. He recently characterized the enemies in the war on terror as those who "drive taxi cabs in the daytime and kill at night." He has also cracked several senseless ethnic jokes, and in his most publicized misstep-for which he has since apologized-Burns told a group of firefighters flown in from Virginia that they did a "piss-poor job" of digging trenches around a 143-square-mile blaze.
Tester has capitalized on such gaffes to cast Burns as an insensitive bigot out of touch with Montana values. That Burns accepted more money than any other member of Congress from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff only furthers that image-never mind that the funds have since gone to charity.
In contrast, Tester's campaign emphasizes its man's rural roots: a farmer from eastern Montana deeply connected to the land, family, and faith. But Republicans warn that such Rockwellian window dressing cannot mask Tester's true identity: a tax-and-spend liberal hiding beneath a conservative haircut. To uncover the reality behind those competing caricatures, WORLD spent a day with the man who may unseat an 18-year GOP incumbent.
An icy north wind whipped through Tester's notes as the stocky, crew-cut politician delivered an outdoor news conference on the morning after his Bozeman debate with Burns. Tester took the opportunity to pile on his sinking opponent, suggesting Burns supports a federal sales tax that would increase the annual tax burden on low-income Montana families by more than five times.
Such blistering attacks have come to define much of the race, both sides filling the airwaves and newspapers with accusations rooted in half-truth and questionable statistics. Burns labels Tester "a taxer." Tester charges Burns with "taking money from Abramoff to change votes."
For both candidates, the negative campaigning has worked in some areas and backfired in others. Tester has commanding leads in most of the state's western cities, while Burns continues holding court further east. Billings, located in central Montana, represents a sort of middle ground, the type of demographic on which the election could turn. On this day, Tester hoped to turn a few heads left.
He stepped inside his Billings campaign headquarters, a shabby maze of hallways and offices decorated hastily with handwritten signs and bumper stickers. The humble operation betrayed Tester's uphill fundraising battle. The 50-year-old president of the state Senate expects to spend about $4 million this fall, less than half of the opposition's budget. Nevertheless, he considers such spending exorbitant and supports campaign finance reform to significantly reduce it-a position consistent with his high view of government solutions to problems.
Tester huddled briefly with his public-relations staff, planning out the day's events. Dressed in a tan suit with blue shirt and no tie, he maintained a look of casual professionalism, approachable yet polished. The first stop on the docket: a retirees' community center complete with gift shop, cafeteria, and the faint smell of aged books. Tester slipped into the scene easily, shaking hands and reminiscing of Montana past. One elderly man commented gruffly on the recent influx of developers overtaking farm land with box stores and strip malls. "It makes me cry," Tester responded, shaking his head.
Another man cordially advised that politicians should "quit this negative advertising. You're wasting your money." Tester replied, somewhat dishonestly, "Well, our money's been going toward positive stuff." As the jovial Democrat made his rounds, a woman in a back room paused from sorting vegetables to offer a motherly hug and then scurried off to tell a friend: "I was just hugging Jon Tester." Several others informed Tester they had already cast votes in his favor via absentee ballots.
Tester was similarly received at his next stop, First Presbyterian Church of Billings, a humble facility with a Spam advertisement tacked to the front door. The organic wheat farmer made his way between lunch tables, admiring the rhubarb cake and carrot salad and cracking jokes about his expanding waistline. Several parishioners requested signs and bumper stickers.
Like many Democrats, Tester has made a concerted effort to connect with religious conservatives-and with moderate success. He has sought to broaden the definition of moral values to include such things as health care and renewable energy. That strategy has worked on a national scale: In a recent Newsweek poll, 42 percent of respondents said Democrats do a better job protecting moral values while just 36 percent said Republicans are superior.
"I have done my best to reach out to [values voters] in ways and with issues that impact their families-health care, energy, fiscal responsibility," Tester told WORLD. "That's what government's about, serving folks that need help and providing services that are critical to society."
Tester is a member of the Church of God in his hometown, Big Sandy, Mont. He says his faith and family upbringing have played critical roles in establishing how he views the world. He supports traditional marriage, an issue already settled in Montana. "From a faith standpoint, I can tell you things don't happen by accident," he said. "When you're on the farm, there are a lot of miraculous things that happen every year-from an alfalfa seed sprouting to an incredible plant to livestock and how they're put on the earth to feed people."
Such statements have helped undermine attempts to portray Tester as a far-left-winger. But the populist candidate does not apologize for his position on abortion: "I think it's a decision that should be left to a lady and her doctor and her faith and not to a government official back in Washington D.C.," he said before parroting the line of many Democrats: "We need to do whatever we can do to make abortion safe, legal, and rare."
As Tester walked to his car in the parking lot of First Presbyterian, he told his wife to pet the dogs when she got home and wished her safe travels. The couple of 27 years shared a tender moment as they said goodbye. Sharla Tester has accompanied her husband throughout much of the campaign, her occasional departures confined only to brief and necessary checks on the family's 1,800-acre farm.
Fittingly, the consummate farmer's choice for lunch was a local sandwich shop dubbed Great Grains of Montana. He ordered a ham and Swiss panini and chatted warmly with patrons before taking a seat near the center of the restaurant. A woman approached to offer some unsolicited advice: "I'm concerned about the direction of the campaign," she said. "Just because the other side goes negative, you don't have to. Run your own race." Tester received the rebuke graciously and admitted upon the woman's departure that he has "slipped at that a bit."
Nevertheless, 15 minutes later, Tester was back in the saddle firing shots during an interview with the local NBC television affiliate-accusing Burns of rubberstamping the Bush administration's foreign policies. In a midterm election steeped with bitter anti-Bush sentiment, staying positive is difficult-and likely unnecessary for a meat-and-potatoes Montanan with a gaffe-prone opponent.